Tag Archives: kitsch

Teuila Postcards, or the revenge of the cultural object

Teuila Postcards is an example of that thing-that-isn’t-theatre: performance. To use the language deign of theatre-lay restaurateurs, say, on annual night out, it is dancing with a narrative that goes beyond movement, yet never resolves into a plot. In the audience comprised mainly of enthused Pacific Islanders, my date and I had an evening of giggles and standing ovation, and understood perfectly how come theatre is ritual, rather than story-telling. Not merely an artform that works best when it looks at the instances of disingenuousness, of fronting an audience: it is an artform in so many ways political, because it is social, because it makes things happen in front of people.

Teuila Postcards, Polytoxic. Arts House, 2009.

If I must assume a high-school tone, Teuila Postcards is about tourism, the performance of culture, the distortion of culture for an easy buck, and the beauties of colonial rule. It features floral shower caps, some semi-folkloric dancing, laundry-hanging, and a most charming fa’afafine. I admit here my predilection for art that critically addresses tourism, doubtlessly deriving from a childhood spent in a tourist destination, followed by early young-adulthood in a tourist destination par excellance. Moving to Melbourne after a lifetime of being stared at and asked for directions, dodging drunken backpackers on Saturday nights and wrestling my culture out of the need to perform for the clicking camera and pointed microphones, it was sultrying to arrive into a place where every do-gooder considered their own tourist practice an act of unquestionable virtuousness. The easy prostitution of my formative years, the easy interpretation of it all as good and right by some distant, ignorant Australians, has remained an alarming and troubling point of internal argument for me ever since. For this reason only, Teuila Postcards was a welcome experience.

It is an exercise in subversion and in laughter and in exorcism, presented this audience of art-subalterns and non-theatre-goers-of-colour with a series of tourist eye-candy, so pastel as to be nearly macabre. From a woman in lava-lava (Pacific sarong, to keep the high-school lingo) and T-shirt, hanging her laundry, listening to Cindi Lauper and dancing a feline little unconscious dance across the stage while a 1960s tourist in sharp heels and two-piece tourist suit was flashing a camera at her, to a pair of Gothic colonial ladies in shiny, spidery black crinolines, drinking tea in an elaborate ritual, orientalised beyond recognition as English roses, the deep intelligence of this piece is rendered nearly invisible, super-subtle underneath a mad combination of fun and beauty. While the structure would benefit from being less fragmented (one pricks up one’s ears to hear the mad undressing scramble during costume-change breaks), less resembling a series of tableaux, Teuila Postcards manages to flow, stutteringly, from the arrival of confused tourists onto Samoa to their departure, and in between an entire culture caricaturized for their perusal. Yet what we see is never bitter, never self-pityingly victimized. A culture that grew into modernity through colonisation always exists in a symbiosis with its own mockery: a female Steve Irwin observing the indigenous male is as offensive as it is hilarious.

Above it all, the wonderful dancing scenes: a tourist-pleasing shimmy morphing into an MC Hammer routine, an exotic-beauty-cum-tribal-warrior dance as a background in a fizzy-drink commercial, down to the jointy, angular spider-woman twitch of the palagi (‘fallen from the sky’, ie ‘white person’) woman, who literally lands on the stage with balletoid gorgeousness, yet cannot be but hilarious. The whole thing is so amusing that the brainy performanceness of it all manages not to alienate a single audience sulk.

On the way home, I was thinking about other theatre works of interpretive tourism, and the great use they all make of choreographing it. Tourist movement is mass choreography like no else: like ballet ensembles, same direction, same tempo, same costume, many same-looking bodies. A beach collonisation, end-of-season exodus, or Teuila‘s pas de troix of drinking, nausea and vomit: how beautifully predictable, how excitingly, heart-warmingly homogeneous tourists are.

Teuila Postcards. By Polytoxic. Artists and Creators: Efeso Fa’anana, Leah Shelton, Lisa Fa’alafi. Costume Design and Construction: Leah Shelton, Lisa Fa’alafi. Lighting Design: Andrew Meadows. Sound: Efeso Fa’anana, Leah Shelton. Visuals: Jaxzyn Stage Manager: Justin Marshman. Set Design: Lisa Fa’alafi with Polytoxic. Set Consultant: Jonathon Oxlade. Set Construction: Troy Gilliland. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne, 13-16 May.

Tagged ,


Woyzeck, entering the play already half-psychotic, wanders lost in a world that has slipped into an orgiastic drill of sex and death. On these terms, the Malthouse Woyzeck works. While it is a production characterised by Kantoresque abstract gaudiness, it makes madness felt, close by, desired and understood as a natural reaction against the overabundance of noise.

In his little book “Why read classics?”, Italo Calvino remarked: “A classic is a text that has never finished saying what it has to say.” This is the key to understanding the relentless allure of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. As Alison Croggon has incisively observed, Woyzeck is the poster child for a masterpiece by error, a fragmentary, never completed text that eludes the reader, that leads nowhere, that’s all trails to wrong clues. Yet it is this openness that has kept Woyzeck current, allowed it to be stretched, pulled, read and re-read.

It seems to me that, in order to qualify for Calvino’s definition of the classic, a work of art needs to never quite add up to hundred percent, never achieve the satisfying closure of clarity and meaning; a part needs to remain loose, dark, inexplicable but somehow true. A small bit, irreducible to an explanation, fighting against interpretation of the rest of the work like a guerrilla sign. Like the leap towards realism that the Italian Renaissance achieved with sfumato, the haziness of detail; like the mysteriously evocative nexus, discovered by Bataille in The Story of the Eye, between the erotic imagination and those indelible memories, traumatic elementary images, on which, I quote, “the conscious floats indefinitely, unable to endure them.” Impossible to pin down, wiggling out of its own conclusions, a classic makes the best use out of what Slavic languages call nedorečenost: the quality of not having finished what one started saying.

Certainly inspired by the French Revolution, that macabre social experiment that allowed for every hypothesis to be tested, Georg Büchner died young, fervent and revolutionary-minded, but before finding a way to outline any of his political programs and social solutions in literary terms. Woyzeck could be read as his attempt to develop some politically and psychologically radical ideas, thoughts that existed only in the embryonic form in the early nineteenth-century Germany: a plausible social anatomy of madness, a link between domestic violence and institutional violence, the questionable morality of class oppression. The utter strangeness of Büchner’s ideas, combined with the ferocity of the delivery, have reserved him a place in literary history as the forefather of expressionism (and literary sedition, but less commonly so). This may sound like an overstatement to the 2009 Melbourne kids, who get costume war dramas a dime a dozen but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Woyzeck was the first German literary text to feature lower-class protagonists (before there even was such a thing as working class!). Unfinished and ambitious, the play remains a tantalizing sketch, a light speculation rather than a thundering condemnation. Madness, murder, and medical experiment chime and collide, without ever agreeing on a cause and consequence.

Bojana Novakovic in Woyzeck, Melbourne 2009. Photo: Jeff Busby.

While Woyzeck has become a stage classic that every town seems to be playing a version of, Australian mainstream theatre doesn’t see nearly enough of this play. Michael Kantor’s production, now playing at the Malthouse, is a buy-in, based on Gisli Őrn Gardarsson’s widely-toured musical adaptation for Vesturport Theatre. This production eschews the Icelandic acrobatics, the factory setting and the complex pop referencing so beloved by our European brethren (Marie appears in a Snow White-looking attire), and keeps the storyline edit and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s music. Whether that’s an improvement or not is hard to tell without having seen the Icelandic version. I admit I am intrigued: Vesturport seem to have toured the Anglosphere extensively, a rare feat for a European production. Yet aquariums and trapeze tricks do not quite Woyzeck make; Vesturport’s make-over sounds much too much like an attempt to energize this bone-dry play into a moist MTV vaudeville, a fury of excess. Rather, with its stop-start episodes, its hallucinatory slips and its slow build-up of betrayal, the story of Woyzeck is defined by the blocked, frustrated, supressed and excessively slow, uneven trickle of energy.

The Malthouse production keeps it tense and grinding: the bleakness is never relieved, the pacing never overly accelerated. Woyzeck’s breakdown is as slow and painful to watch as it would be to experience. It is a strangely satisfying, accurate production. Kantor’s signature insistence on kitsch and trash works wonders. Woyzeck has been moved to the contemporary war zone. The maddening effect is inscribed not into the banal churn of the institution and the upper classes’ thought terrorism, but into the whirlpool of war. And Kantor gets it very strangely right: war really does drive people insane, and it does it mainly through kitsch and through trash. War is an absolute assault on the senses, defined, like any mass hysteria, by the utter absence of silence, a relentless noise that smothers thought.

War also, let’s get this straight, works as a big conscription machine. Years before any war can commence are spent drumming up playground tunes, working up as many souls as possible into a murderous frenzy, which can only be achieved by playing to the lowest common denominator. Once the war starts, it is even more crucial to keep everyone amused, attuned, sharp – the whirlpool accelerates. Kitsch and trash, thus, are woven into the very fabric of war. Woyzeck, entering the play already half-psychotic, wanders lost in a world that has slipped into an orgiastic drill of sex and death. On these terms, the Malthouse Woyzeck works. While it is a production characterised by Kantoresque abstract gaudiness, it makes madness felt, close by, desired and understood as a natural reaction against the overabundance of noise.

The episodic state of the play is well-served by the insertion of music numbers, combining with Peter Corrigan’s set into a semi-abstract nightmare of hard form and vague emotion. The cast is thrillingly good, from the meandering wartime masculinity of Hamish Michael and Tim Rogers (a wondrous, visceral stage performer), to the off-key but intense Bojana Novakovic, and the humane, exasperated madness of Socratic Otto. Marco Chiappi, Merfyn Owen and Mitchell Butel as the trio of torturers are beautifully realised. As the characters descend into a partying, stuporous insanity, they become a collective oneiric carnival, with the harshness of detail and absolute absence of overarching structure that serves the play particularly well.

Less successful is the overall concept: by choosing to present it in the simple and consistent visual key of post 9/11 warfare and Mad Max proletarian hell, Kantor interprets the production into a corner. It may not be a circus extravaganza, yet, if it fails, it fails by being too solid, too defined in its message, unable to match the operettic, manic inconsistency of its literary model. The beauty of the play is in its openness, its nedorečenost. This production, defining itself in terms of the War on Terror, is not big enough to hold it all, and many bits are slipping out, unaccounted for. Unable to spread its imagination as wide and erratic as Büchner, it explores only some of the many meandering thoughts. The class friction, the obscene, smug and self-moralising brutalism of science and institution upon the lower-class man, as represented by the Doctor and the Captain, don’t quite survive in this Mickey Mouse madness. The semantic sprawl of Buchner instead morphs into a two-pronged commentary both on the horror of the lower-class warscape, and the upper-class decadence, with a very uneven result.

Mitchell Butel and Socrattis Otto in Woyzeck, Melbourne 2009. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The great effectiveness and restraint of much of the production is undermined by some small, but resonatingly unfortunate choices. The first part kicks off as a solid failure: drum major the rock star, performers dancing in a Village People line…; there is a camp decadence to the entire thing that misses the mark. The Doctor, here represented by Mitchell Butel with Mickey Mouse ears and a skelleton T-shirt, enters signifying all sorts of confusing things at once, but none to do with institutional oppression, while Captain’s remarks whilst being shaved fizzle aimlessly, in the lack of class target. However, the production really takes off in the last two thirds, the lewd and quite sad seduction of Marie by the Marco Chiappi’s Drum Major and Woyzeck’s helpless frustration turning into jealousy, mostly because the collective madness is so well played that, by the time Woyzeck snaps, we are irritated enough by the colours, sounds and the gaudiness of the production we would gladly join in. The calmness that besets the play after Marie’s murder, Novakovic floating under the plexiglass platform/swamp like a strange fish (sensuous and grotesque as a Klimt painting) is, contrastingly, a harsh bubble of horror. Rarely, rarely does the finite futility of murder fill the stage with such accuracy.

Yet Kantor chooses to set Marie’s murder on a beige couch of a middle-class suite, a bubble of soulless comfort on a set dominated by sharp black angles. For as long as we choose to interpret his interpretation as that of sex, drugs and decadence, that’s fine, yet choosing to do so would strip the production of credibility. Removing the murder from aesthetic horror of the entire remaining play into a setting that’s faux calm, insincerely neutral and only a semblance of peace, it appears equivalent to the usual setting of Marie’s murder into a park. Yet some bit of logic fails to click. Woyzeck hangs mid-air, not quite making its point. What sofa?, where from?, why? Since this is only the first moment in the production where semantic friction grates hard, it doesn’t result in layering, but confusion, and no complexity is gained.

Later, committing the second and last faux pas, Tim closes the play by saying, The loveliest murder we’ve had in years. And he doesn’t say it with that bourgeois, decadent righteousness that would tie it back to the Captain’s shaving, the production doesn’t communicate a touch of awareness of how inappropriate this phrase is. He says it like an elegy, and kills whatever effect may have survived the sofa. Having played it just right for so long, Woyzeck ends on a false note. As a result, it is a very fine production, but unevenly intelligent.

Among the theatre commentators, there appears to be a solid division between the literary folk and the visually-minded: while most practitioners seem to fall among the eyesy, both playwrights and critics, significantly, appear to be verbally inclined: the disagreement between Alison and Martin over this production, looks like an exemplary case of the rift between the richness of the text (both its literary and historical merit), and the relative poverty of the images, which in this case illustrate and fill the narrative holes with syrupy consistency, but do not launch a world of their own. As an insider to war, but an outsider to the world of televised conflict, I cannot judge the effect of the stage images on the audience, which seems to me the most problematic side of this type of production. To recycle and reference, in this context, is to push emotional buttons that may lead, quite the contrary, to disaffected boredom. What this Woyzeck depicts, in the spectrum between the intense misery of the poor and banal self-destruction of the rich, is hard to tell.

Ultimately, Woyzeck is a strangely satisfying production, yet never more than the sum of its parts. While it is possible to justify every false step it makes by some sign in the text, the interpretative tradition or pop imagery, it remains a solid illustration of the text, rather than a theatrically independent work of sheer brilliance. It adds nothing, either visually or philosophically. It depicts some solid madness. Whether it points to the right causes for this madness, whether it tries to at all, and even whether it ought to, are all points up for discussion.

Woyzeck. By Georg Büchner, adapted by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, English translation by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Ruth Little. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Directed by Michael Kantor, sets, costumes and mask designs by Peter Corrigan, musical direction, sound design and additional composition by Peter Farnan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Mitchell Butel, Marco Chiappi, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Socratis Otto, Merfyn Owen and Tim Rogers. Music performed by Simon Burke, Xani Kolac and Dan Witton. Malthouse Theatre at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, February 4-28.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Masque of the Red Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , , ,

On accents and other forms of realism: a mini essay.

1. A few weeks ago, my review of Hoy Polloy’s production of Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found appeared on vibewire.net:

“Two of the things ostensibly most cherished in a work of art are battling throughout the Hoy Polloy's production of Fin Kennedy's How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. On the one hand, the universal relevance of the questions and answers presented. On the other, the evocative and resonant portrayal of a time and place.

In translating art, be it literature or a play, one has a peculiar problem of deciding just how much local colour to keep, how far to stray from literalness. While in cinema unintrusive conveying is relatively easy, in literature this may require a catastrophe of footnotes; and in theatre, naturalism.

The entire first act of How to Disappear… is an agony of accents and costumes, wrung and turned and stretched down to an inch of its life by a relentless pursuit of verisimilitude. It takes the second act to realise that no, this was not obligatory. The play doesn't dictate realism, quite the contrary, the text itself is a nightmare of confused faces, hallucinatory places, contradicting motives. It is as set in London as it could be in Sydney, or on the Moon. That the second act almost redeems the first is due to its rebellion from the style of the production, the fact that Hoy Polloy allow it to be something other than British television. For the entire first act, we are progressively more confused: if this is objective life, what is going on? In which order? Why are characters such clichés, and how can this Mike the Deus Ex Machina character be taken seriously by anyone? What should we feel, why?

In this naturalistic hell, it is good to ask why do it in the first place. It is, for one, immensely hard. Film has free access to the recognition, to the synthesis of memories and associations, endlessly triggered by details: the scenery, the facial traits of the local populace, the gesture, the weather, the textures, the sounds. The play, creating the world anew in the black box, must conspire with the audience to allow for the sparse staging elements to stand for the world of details the audience may not even be familiar with. We need to work together. And so, the first act of How to Disappear… is one big effort to distil a quotidian London from the strange string of events, semi-realistic costumes (but recognisably slack Australian tailoring), and shaky accents which travel the British Isles in order to accumulate credibility.

Hoy Polloy: How to Disappear…, Melbourne (Au), 2008. Photo: Tim Williamson.

I am highly against theatrical acting in accents. I imagine that deftness with accents is bread and butter to local actors, but it helps neither the play nor the acting to have them stumble around Commonwealth as if in a farce. All the usual problems are present here: the acting suffers, the sense of inconsistency abounds – why does everyone feel the need to try on an Irish accent? – and, most importantly, it creates a high wall between our time and space, and that of the play, with the result feeling a bit like sitting in front of some imported BBC show. I left the theatre wondering why it made me feel so little. The text was so strong. As a person who once thought about disappearing herself, I thought I would feel its breath on my neck. Instead, its energy was dissipated in a hopeless chase of details.

And why? When a play is showing a mirror to its context, and skilfully breaks reality down into minuscule details, like Ranters Theatre recently did with The Wall, there may be a rationale, but if a play is already striving towards a universal message, why not try to bridge the gap, climb the wall?

David Passmore probably gives the most consistent performance, both in mood and accent, holding the play together with his omnipresence on stage. Michael F Cahill's performance is of equally high standard, but the remaining three actors struggle to represent an entire world of strange, half-hallucinatory yet unmistakably British people. And who can blame them?”

2. Quoting the above in toto should contextualize the comment made by John Richards, also quoted in toto:

Despite that fact that this reply may give your “review” more importance than it warrants, I feel compelled to correct you on a couple of points. As a recent viewer of this production my estimate of the number of accents used is that there were only two Irish accents (the Priest and the Nurse). While there were a couple of American accents, one Scottish and one Ukranian, the majority of accents were English. I wonder what you would have said about Hoy Polloy’s Shining City, set in Dublin – perhaps too many English accents?

“It is as set in London as it could be in Sydney, or on the Moon.” The play is specifically set in London and Southend, nowhere else. Neither Sydney nor the moon have equivalents to Southend and its world-famous pier. It would be interesting to hear the playwright’s opinion of altering its locale to these inappropriate settings.

3. This is a belated response, due to personal reasons of all sorts. I wanted to have space to think breezily about the questions of setting, verisimilitude, and theatrical devices. I would encourage further comments, because I’m not an old conservative with opinions set in stone. None of this should be very smart, nor new to anyone who dedicated five minutes to the same question. I am simply replying.

4. The theatrical reality is built from stratch, just like no world is pre-given on the white sheet of paper. Faced with the impossibility of total re-imaging, theatre resorts to the more or less intelligent employment of few selected objects, sign-posting with more or less precision. The economy of theatrical time means that a play simultaneously builds a reality, and tears it apart to show how it leaks, how it creaks, what it is made of. It builds a cathedral out of signs, and tears it down with a few precise blows.

5. It seems erroneous to me to consider the choice setting to be a simple tick of a box. A play, first of all, can never be set in (eg) London, not even when it’s set in London. Unless it’s literally produced and staged in London, and even then it is a complicated operation. A play is set in a black, abstract space. The Southend pier cannot be brought into this space, no matter how pure our intention, it can at best be re-created on a blank canvas. There is no less artifice, therefore, in putting London into the play, than in putting in Sydney, or the Moon. The play is always primarily in a non-place, built from scratch.

The theatre audience enters the theatre always somewhat aware of stepping into a different place, always prepared to look for signs. Keeping the play within its city limits is the easiest of the options, because the objects and ideas do not need to be transferred far, and because their meaning is familiar to the audience. The farther out we move (in cultural, rather than necessarily geographic terms), the harder it becomes to bring the right objects, right ideas, and convey the right space/time. Subtlety is lost depending on the attention to detail demanded: if a sign needs to be understood, it may need to be literalized to the point of banality. Consider, for example, the difficulties in conveying Eastern Europe to Australia. It is normally done with permed blonde girls, tasteless white or pink skimpy attire, strong accents, frequent smoking, references to communism or poverty. These are not signs found within an Eastern European theatre production to denote hereness. Depending on the transfer within time, the signs may be: packaging and brand names, slight accents, a picture on the wall, or complete lack of costumes.

In Union Theatre House’s production of Attempts on Her Life, the space evoked is an underground station. Michael Magnusson, however, saw a vague airport lounge instead. This is in no way a flaw in the set design, but a simple consequence of our different experiences, and the images we recognise. Was our understanding of the production in any way impaired if our mind substituted one cold, impersonal space with another? Certainly not. In Young Vic’s production of The Good Soul of Szechuan, critics have lauded the modernisation of setting, from a hungry early-20th-century China to the modern, capitalist Szechuan. However, the only signs within the stage design are modern cement factory uniforms and equipment, signs in hanzi, and the engulfing bare plywood that the entire theatre appears to be made of. To a different eye, the stage may well signify Hunan, or Guizhou instead; or Taiwan of the 1980s, or 1950s Japanese factory employing only Chinese workers. Would it be possible that the set designer is making a complex reference to these locales and the working conditions? Of course. We happen to be concluding: Szechwan; but there is nothing in black box that unmistakably says so.

Union House Theatre: Attempts on Her Life, Melbourne (Au), 2008.

Young Vic: The Good Soul of Szechuan, London (UK), 2008.

6. There is, at the same time, more to these signs than simple place-or-time-making. ‘Eastern Europe’, as described above, also means, depending on the eye of the beholder: poor, uneducated, prostitution, traditional femininity, war scars never heal, we should restrict immigration, etc. Combined with theatre’s economy of signs, this is dangerous semiotics. To control the general shape of meanings created in the black box means taking full notice of the multiple resonance of the few objects placed inside. I have witnessed the confusion of European spectators when faced with the portrayal of Australian middle-class torpor and delusions in Don’s Party: swearing, casual attire (shorts! singlets!), and anti-elitist attitude made the class profile of the characters rather murky to the continental eye. Many spent the evening trying to detect whether the conflicts stemmed from different social standing of various characters.

Yet this flexible sign-posting can also easily be played with. Can we produce a classic play without ersatz costuming? Numerous independent theatre continue to do so, with smart costumes that follow the general shapes of times, rather than insist on silk stockings and layered petticoats. Looking into a sparsely furnished black box, mind easily adopts associative logic, finding resonance with small details. A lamp here, a table there, a lacy parasol and hair tied up, and Chris Goode’s Sisters have been fully 19th-centuried. Music is another imprecise clue: Gypsy-sounding music can convey Romany culture enough for our purposes; it is not uncommon to employ classical music mismatching both era and locale, to stand for history; and a modern soundtrack has hardly re-situated a 19th-century play into yesterday.

Hayloft Project: Spring Awakening, Melbourne (Au), 2007.
Photo: Jeff Busby.

In The Good Person of Szechuan, a few interesting choices of this kind were made, with different levels of success. Cross-racial (or blind) casting was employed, although – and this is significant – most viewers would probably notice a South-Asian and an African man first, and only then realise that the entire remaining population of Szechwan is Caucasian. Here is an example of a sign that can easily be ignored if treated right: suspension of disbelief in the black box regularly allows us to watch actors of all shapes and colours; the same way in which we do not object to differently-built and –looking people playing family members. The cast of The Good Person have been sufficiently homogenised in acting for their racial differences to appear no more significant than those of a classroom of children.

Refusing to cast only East-Asian actors does not, pay attention, relocate the good person outside Szechuan; the choice of accents nearly does. Judging from past treatments of Russianness and Middle-Easternness, it would not be unreasonable to expect an Australian production to demand faux-Asian-English lilt from everyone involved. The British production, quite the contrary, makes most of the cast don a lower-class-British accent – as if their poorness is not sufficiently alluded to in the play. Prostitute Shen Te, notably, speaks in one of those good-natured, television-poor sort of stretched, slow, womanly accents, roughly of the Northern English kind, switching to proper theatrical enunciation whenever tough male cousin Shui Ta appears. The variety of local colour complicates the question of locale very much, but this is not all. The semiotic resonance of this teeming mass of naturalistic British poor, helped with Jane Horrocks’s melodramatic acting (which in this case may be a consequence of accent, rather than vice versa), unfortunately results in the entire production looking rather kitchen-sink to anyone acquainted with the British tradition of social melodrama. The resultant play loses Brecht’s epic, sombre qualities and turns into a pretty dire politicking soap-opera, doused in preachy moralism and cheap sentiment. (Even getting a good Brecht play right requires a merciless lack of pathos.)

Young Vic: The Good Soul of Szechuan, London (UK), 2008.

The sign language of the text remains the one set hardest to tinker with. It is not merely a joke here, a poignancy there. Classical plays are full of clever quips that don’t automatically enthral today’s audience, and social cues that go unnoticed. Translation flattens local colour, time murders references to current affairs. Too often, everything in a production has been fine-tuned except the text. In Goode’s Sisters, an excellent restoration of a text, two country officers argue over the meaning of escalope; is it meat, or a kind of onion? One is probably better off not knowing that, in the original text, they were confusing two Caucasian dishes, cheharma and cheremsha. This argument is not about cuisine, but commanding respect for being worldly, experienced.

The Pain and the Itch, recently staged by Red Stitch Actors Theatre, is a play clearly set in California yesterday morning (as long as yesterday morning is also Thanksgiving). The text points it out relentlessly, with references to those lower-class people who voted Bush situating it rather precisely in between the parliamentary and presidential elections; and the production responds by sticking a thick American accent on each and every actor. Inky, a Reagan-era satire of American consumerism recently seen at Theatreworks, treats the same genre accordingly. The problem, in this case, is that no matter how bravely Australian actors pursue their accents – and they do it quite well, relatively speaking – I have not yet witnessed a play in which the actors aren’t obviously putting most of their focus into accents. In The Pain and the Itch, there is a noticeable point towards the last third of the first act, when everyone finally relaxes and starts acting first, and speaking second. In How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, that moment never arrives for most of the cast. In Inky, the production is greatly helped by the delicious Kellie Jones in the title role, first, who acts like she was born backstage, and the focus of the play, second, which is a sort of Fight Club for girls before a satire of manners.

Gate Theatre and Headlong Theatre:
Sisters, London (UK), 2008. Photo: Simon Kane.

The purpose of this quick, upper-class Californian dialogue, may I suggest, lies less in poetical treatment of the rhythms and vocabulary of the language, and more in illustrating the breezy, lite verbose yet hollow communication even intimately connected persons engage with. Making a witty, effortless and fundamentally meaningless exchange of quips sound heavy, rehearsed, focused on, betrays the very reason why the dialog is on stage. And in a resonant black box, where every small sign and gesture is replete with meaning, this is big stuff. The audience can see which way they should suspend belief, but it turns into theatre where too much work is required from the auditorium.

7. Simply speaking, there is no one sign for time, place, emotion or moral. From the clues given, the audience patiently builds the cathedral. The suspension of disbelief can work wonders: in independent theatre groups, we accept young actors playing elderly roles; in established ensembles, we let middle-aged actors play youths. Cross-racial casting leans on this capacity of theatre to favour performative over objective reality. Theatre-makers, even playwrights, can learn to harness the multiplicity of signs generated in this make-believe. Genet’s girls can be played by boys, Srbljanovic’s children by grown-ups.

8. It seems to me that to argue that ersatz accents are required for a play to stay in Southend and London is akin to demanding poor accents in Szechuan, as if to stop Brecht’s characters from inadvertently getting wealthy. It seems suspiciously like a lack of trust in the play itself to demand verisimilitude in an environment where it is near-impossible, to preserve something that may never risk getting lost. Chekhov’s plays are never less Russian for not being performed with thick immigrant accents – just avoiding the comical clichés of the multicultural soap that we are now familiar with. Had How to Disappear… been played in a moonscape, would it be any less set in London? Perhaps it even would (although the spectator who concluded that the play was a Sci-fi piece set on the moon would be a very unusual person indeed). But would it speak any less of London? I doubt.

The Pain and the Itch was originally presented by Red Stitch with most of the play acted in underwear. At the very end, when the characters have been completely exposed in their bickering, hollow human littleness, they finally appear dressed, coiffeured, proper. I know this because we were told. However, I saw a different play. Bruce Norris, the author of the play, had found out about the underwear, and complained to the company, which decided to have the actors wear plain black clothes instead. The effect, suffice to say, was completely lost. Compared to the harm done to the play with the forceful employment of accents, I would not say that the underwear took much away. If anything, it strikes me as strange that the author himself would have so little faith in his play as to consider that his characters could be undressed with a simple directorial decision. In our stoic black box, painted red for the occasion, there were more than plenty of road signs pointing that the play was not about a near-nudist family. Just like we would never conclude that these wealthy Americans lived in a brothel. That Inky is set in a half-apartment, half-boxing ring did not make the audience tear its hair out in confusion: it was the play itself that was both a document of quotidian life and a boxing match.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre: The Pain and the Itch,
Melbourne (Au), 2008. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson.

What all the plays mentioned have in common, and I myself have only realised now, is being productions of successful texts from far away: either in time, space, or mindset. The reasons why Inky is a thoroughly successful play, while The Good Soul of Szechuan somewhat schmaltzy and spineless, are more complex than my little essay can dwell into. However, it is this faithfulness to the effect, rather than the external form of the play, that separates a good theatrical moment from a merely decent one. To be careful, but not literal, is all I can recommend. To stay on the safe side of brave, would it not be possible to learn from the way independent theatre approximates costumes and set, and approximate accents in order to protect the actors’ expressive range (the way Tory Rodd sort of did in How to Disappear…, speaking in that polite, closed upper-middle Australian English)? Are there not more than two ways to go?

How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, by Fin Kennedy, directed by Paul King, Sound design by George Bisset.With Michael F Cahill, Glen Hancox, Helen Hopkins, David Passmore and Tory Rodd. Hoy Polloy Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne (Au), 23 May – 7 June 2008. Season ended.

The Pain and the Itch, by Bruce Norris, directed by Gőrkem Acaroglu. Design by Anna Cordingley. With Sarah Sutherland, Daniel Frederiksen, Brett Cousins, Andrea Swifte, Terry Yeboah, Erin Dewar, Oregen Guilloux-Cooke and Fantine Banulski. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne (Au), 30 April – 31 May 2008. Season ended.

Inky, by Rinne Groff, directed by Jacquelin Low. Set design by Emily Collett. Costume design by Doyle Barrow. With Kellie Jones, Eleanor Howlett and Roderick Cairns. Original music by Wintership Quartet. Theatreworks, Melbourne (Au), 22 May – 8 June 2008. Season ended.

The Good Soul of Szechuan, by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by David Harrower. Directed by Richard Jones. Set by Miriam Buether. Costume by Nicky Gillibrand. Light by Paule Constable. Music by David Sawer. With Steven Beard, Linda Dobell, Gareth Farr, Adam Gillen, Shiv Grewal, Jane Horrocks, Merveille Lukeba, John Marquez, Sam O'Mahony-Adams, David Osmond, Susan Porrett, Sophie Russell, Liza Sadovy, Tom Silburn and Michelle Wade. Young Vic, London (UK), 8 May – 28 June 2008.

Sisters, by Anton Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Chris Goode. Design by Naomi Dawson. Lighting design by Anna Watson. With Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick, Tom Lyall and Melanie Wilson. Gate Theatre in co-production with Headlong Theatre, London (UK), 5 June – 5 July 2008.

Tagged , , , ,

Meryl Tankard; two stories.

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


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

The first is the key to the beauty of dance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Have a look.

Photo credits: Regis Lansac


The second is the theatre audience.

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

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

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

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

Does that change our perspective of the play?

by Jana Perkovic

Tagged , ,