Tag Archives: Malthouse

The Critic #03

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This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading “The Critic #03” »

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So what has been going on…?

Dear reader, I apologise for the erratic blog-keeping; that is all I have managed lately. I started 2013 by half-leaving Berlin and coming back to Melbourne, mainly to complete my Master of Urban Design. I had an incredible, life-changing trip to Jordan, and a short stop-over in Thailand, on my way back. I arrived to Melbourne, and have since been bogged down in bureaucracy, university, and various small commitments, as small as possible.

One great thing I learned last year was the value of living slowly. I cannot quite live slowly right now – my thesis is due in a month’s time – but I am trying to stay in a low gear. The MUD is due to end in June 2013 – until then, I am in my study&research den.

But, things have been going on, despite how jealously I have been protecting my time.

After much deliberation, I have started another blog, (urban) GS, where I have moved all my spatial writing. This was a momentous decision, because I hardly have time for one blog. However, I have been feeling acutely that I need space to think, think freely, about my actual, paid profession: urbanism. And this blog, however broadly it is defined by its title, guerrilla semiotics, is a theatre blog. It has worked wonders for me, on a totally personal level, being able to ramble about urban planning and design without feeling like I was harassing my readers with a marginal interest.

I am participating in Experiments in site-writing, this year’s program for Architecture + Philosophy, run by the talented and indefatigable Esther Anatolitis and Dr Hélène Frichot, together with Lauren Brown. Very talented company, and I am looking forward to this nice distraction from my more serious work. I am a huge, huge fan of Architecture + Philosophy, and being a part of it is a great honour.

And finally, a disclosure I absolutely need to make: I have been asked to be a member of Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Counsel in 2013 – which means I will be providing feedback to the theatre on their general programming and so. I don’t generally review Malthouse performances, certainly not in paid capacity, and never for an external publication, so I would say the conflict of interest is minimal, and certainly no bigger than as is inevitable in the Melbourne theatre. However, I have since realised I am likely to write MORE about Malthouse productions now, simply because I will have to see them all. Considering how Cameron Woodhead has been wiping the floor with Alison Croggon for her having the same role in 2005 and 2006, this seems like a situation worth clarifying in advance.

Meanwhile, for my minor thesis I am researching temporary use of space; things like Gap Filler, Renew Newcastle, and other such combinations of place-making, architecture, and what oftens amounts to a kind of site-specific performance. I might be increasingly posting bits here: video clips, thoughts, interviews. I think this is theatre-related enough that everyone will enjoy it.

Thank you for sticking around!

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(brief) RW: Dance of Death

(This will be brief and totally fail to mention some essential aspects of theatre – acting, lighting, sound – in order to make a focused argument with a limited palette of means. Since I am going to be critical of the production, anything not mentioned – acting, lighting, sound – generally did not participate in the failure of the production.)

Matthew Lutton’s Dance of Death is the weakest production I’ve seen at the Malthouse in a long time, jostling with some of the most perfunctory stagings of Michael Kantor’s. It is so disjontedly and confusingly put together, every obvious entry point (who wrote it, what it is about, what it tries to do) requires such long-winded guesswork, that I don’t even know where to begin with my reflection.

August Strindberg’s play about the purgatorial misery of patriarchal marriage, replete with glib misogyny, was re-written by Friedrich Durrenmatt in 1969 as a parody of both Western bourgeois marriage and Western bourgeois drama intent on depicting it as a tragedy, and not, I don’t know, a blip of history that would be moribund by the 1960s anyway. The Malthouse production stages the latter text, in a further reworking by Tom Holloway.

Holloway mainly seems to have added lots of fairly repetitive cursing, which weighs the technically sound Durrenmatt down with a lot of glib humour, and derails the concept almost completely. Durrenmatt’s deconstruction is a logical response of the culture and the theatre of his time to Strinberg; it is a dialogue of two moments in history (including history of theatre). What Holloway’s voice adds to this conversation, if anything, is the ignorance and insularity of Melbourne 2013: we don’t understand what’s going on over there, we don’t see how it reflects on us over here, but we could create some nice stage images. And we’ll make everyone speak in local vernacular, because we know that people will laugh. It is like that moment in which an interesting and engrossing conversation is hijacked by a fresh young graduate who just really wants to talk to these people; and everyone politely waits until he has finished, hoping they won’t lose the thread of the conversation. (I apologise if my language is harsh. I think this is the most accurate analogy.)

Lutton’s staging is a pastiche that clearly isn’t intentional. There are references to a boxing ring and fight rounds (per Durrenmatt), but the set is a glass box in traverse. This is actually quite nice – the effect is that of an aquarium – but the physical constraints of the space clash with the constant references to characters having been to other places outside, just moments ago. There is modern language, but period costume. There is entering and exiting, but nobody can leave the aquarium. There are echoes of sets and effects popularised in Australia by Andrews, Schlusser, Stone – but to no obvious unified goal.

The first third of the narrative is gripping, as we watch a married couple descend from a chat into a full-blown domestic argument with recognisable automatism (there is parody in it, but there is parody in every real-life ongoing domestic dispute). However, once they’ve arrived into the fight, Alice and Edgar can’t get out, because the play won’t move. It quickly becomes a hostage situation: Alice and Edgar are trapped for eternity in their marriage, and the audience is trapped in the theatre with them, waiting out the improbable plot twists and personality changes. It all feels exactly like a certain kind of low-grade Hollywood film, in which the plot turns more wildly, and faster, the closer we are getting to the end; the characters’ personalities keep stretching in order to fill the ever-expanding revelations about their past actions; and it all seems written by a script-robot.

And then there is the wildly broad tone of the production. It is played bleak and violent and shoutingly, and it is as exhausting to be privy to a staged domestic as to a real one. But the tone keeps slipping into broad-farcical (courtesy of swearing); it is as if Lutton and Holloway want to tell a tragedy, but keep getting fits of giggles. It could, at a stretch, work as a tragicomedy if the plot referred to a known reality of anyone, anywhere, today. However, it does not, and cannot. The plot is Durrentmatt’s farce of the 19th-century bourgeois drama. The satire of his work is directed towards the self-dramatising excess of the entire genre. Oh, but how the creative team disagrees with me on that point…! And how they seem to want the tragedy of Strindberg AND the humour of Durrenmatt without listening to the nuances in the conversation between the two – because the conversation is maybe too complicated, and about ideology and politics and other such things that Australian culture is not too accustomed to talking about.

In all this confusion of intent and effect, what I lost was any sense of what this production positively wanted to say. It was definitely something designed by a committee, but I couldn’t even tell you what the committee was aiming at. Was it a good bourgeois marriage drama? Or a middle-class farce? Or a well-made tragedy from the dramatic canon? Irreverent young take on a classical author?

But here is what it is not: an exploration of the currently hotly debated institution of marriage; a formal argument about the ideology inherent in theatrical staging; a postmodern conversation with the dramatic history; a Beckettian existential contemplation; or a bleak parody of a tired genre that is genuinely fun to watch.

** Disclaimer: I am a member of the Malthouse Theatre Artistic Counsel in 2013, which means I might have to provide some structured feedback on the 2013 season, some time in the future.

DANCE OF DEATH
by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
English text by Tom Holloway
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Set & Costume Design Dale Ferguson
Lighting Design Paul Jackson
Composition & Sound Design Kelly Ryall,
Cast Jacek Koman, Belinda McClory, David Paterson,
18 April – 19 May, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse.

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The Wild Duck: The Slapified Ibsen (review/essay)

Here, a disclaimer: if you have liked The Wild Duck, that is your prerogative and I respect it. If you are going to disagree with me, please do not suggest that I hate all Australian, Melbourne, mainstage, or theatre theatre, because I don’t. Also don’t bring up anything along the lines of: we must support our artists/the general audience needs no reason to avoid theatre further/I am mean and/or envious which makes me look bad. I have taken considerable time out of my schedule to write this, in hotels in Malaysia and sublets in Berlin, because it nagged at me, as an intellectual problem.

I was very disappointed with Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck (at Malthouse, on loan from Sydney’s Belvoir). After it received very positive reviews and many awards from a variety of sources, I expected a masterpiece. After Thyestes, I expected a masterpiece. The Wild Duck is a competently executed production, it is good, but I believe it isn’t even very good. Its underpinning dramaturgical logic is questionable, it talks down to the audience, it has nothing to say about Ibsen’s original, and whether it succeeds in its intended effect largely relies on the audience not having any familiarity with the play.

I suspect there are two underlying reasons why I disliked The Wild Duck. Firstly, I have not seen much Melbourne mainstage work in 2011; hence, I am not used to its largely poor level of execution. The mainstage theatre I still see I hold to as high a standard as I can muster. Secondly, I re-read the play a few nights before seeing the work. I am pretty sure that did not make me Stone’s intended audience. I did it strategically, however: I wanted to see an interpretation, not a play. since The Wild Duck has been billed as an interpretation, as done after Ibsen, I didn’t want to be distracted by the plot. This is not only a perfectly legitimate way of viewing theatre, it is also the one that is in order when we watch classics informedly.

Simon Stone, and in fact many Australian theatre directors, often explains his position within theatre as a sort of evangelist, a priest of classical prophets. He has read and found these plays, and he would love to bring them to the general public, is how he often speaks in interviews and program notes. He will do what it takes to bring them closer to the average man, because he wants to convey the beauty of the classics. But Stone appears to understand these works primarily as stories: not even moral or philosophical tales, but stories as in complex plots which, by compacting time and space, bring a story format to salient moral quandaries of their time.

However, that is not all that a classical play is.

A classical play is important because of its role in its time. Specificaly, Ibsen’s plays are important for many more reasons than pure story-telling. They are important because (in no particular order): Ibsen brought realism to theatre *, dramatising the Norwegian bourgeois class and its moral quandaries; he focused on moral quandaries that were salient in his times, particularly the many questions of equality within families (wives, children) and that of truth, and how long-held lies and secrets corrupt both public and private organisations, families and the state likewise; because many of his moral quandaries were not at all discussed at the time, and his dramatisations were speech acts in their own right; because he was a great innovator of dramatic language, simplifying and liberating the stage from oppressive, long monologues and introducing chatter and conversational language to the stage.

* Placing the Chekhovian gun on the wall, I would like to remark here that Ibsen has been a long, unsurpassed grandfather influence to much too much British (and in one remove Australian) drama: condensing the great moral questions of our time to a two-hour dinner party sometimes appears to be the only structuring logic the average (not fine, however) Anglophone playwright has known since about the 1950s.

The British theatrical tradition, to which Australia is heir, holds dearly the belief that the text contains everything, and that the director’s role is to ‘honour the text’. But this really is not, and cannot, be the case: the theatre, as we know from Peter Brook, is a moment in space and time shared between the performer and the audience. A play is of its own space and time, but the performer and the audience are often from another. The moment of theatre, the original moment that made this play an important play, cannot be recreated ad infinitum until the end of time, at any corner of the globe. This is why interpretation is such an important part of what theatre is: every staging is an interpretation, a translation/betrayal of the text, which was always only a pretext, in order to re-create the moment of mitspiel or co-play of performer and audience by any means necessary: the theatrical moment that is the essence of theatre.

Like any translation, a theatrical interpretation ages and needs to constantly evolve: there is not a definitive interpretation of any play whatsoever. Patrice Pavis, the great father of contemporary European dramaturgical theory, perhaps puts it most eloquently in his book Theatre at the Crossroads of Culture:

For a long time criticism of the classics and interpretation of mise en scene have acted as if time had done no more than cover the text with layers of dust; in order to make the text respectable, it was enough to clean up and get rid of the deposits which history, layers of interpretation, and hermeneutic sediment had left on an essentially untouched text. This phantasmatic image of the classical text could develop not only into an attempt to reconstruct archeologically the historical conditions of performance, but also into a modernization of performance style (classics in modern dress, gadgets alluding anachronistically to contemporary life). In each case, ‘dusting’ the text entails an idealist assumption according to which correcting classical language is all one needs to do to reach the level of the dictional world and of the ideologemes reduced to an objet fixe, a mixture of ancient and modern times.

Pavis, the theorist of postmodernism, remarks that dramaturgs and directors have resisted this notion:

Alain Girault has noted that ‘the dusting operation implies an idealist philosophical notion of the permanence of man. “Dusting” is finally “dehistoricizing”, denying history (reducing it to surface reflection, to “dust”).’ Refusing to ‘dust off involves an assumption of historical displacement, shocking the audience with the consciousness of a formal separation which corresponds to a separation of distinct world views, Brecht notes that, after the mise en scene of Schiller’s Robbers, Piscator told him that ‘he had looked for what would make people remark on leaving the theatre that 150 years were no small matter.’

Or Antoine Vitez:

Either one leaves the dust and continues as before – the Comedie Francaise has been gathering layers of dust for a long time and masking the dust with a new layer of wax – or one can try something else. One can do more than simply remove the dust; one can alter the object itself. A vase that has been miraculously preserved can always be useful. A play is quite different. The object itself is fundamentally transformed, even if the text remains completely intact. We can no longer read it in the same way as those readers for whom it was written. What we read is a kind of memory; this consists of making distorted elements reappear to our present life – in fact, the correspondence between individual and social body.

Pavis again:

What appears to be important in the reading of the classical text is the ability to historicize the dust, instead of ignoring it or covering it up. This practice is quite close to translation, which provides a version of the source text in the language of the new reader, who then has a choice: between a translation-adaptation that, in order to avoid slavishly copying the text to be translated, transposes the text into its new cultural context; and a more literal translation that, at the risk of a feeling of strangeness and idiomatic shortcomings, preserves something of the rhetoric and world view of the source language. Like translation, reading the classics is always accompanied by a loss of meaning, or rather by the destruction of whole facets of signification.

A classical text contains two kinds of ambiguity or indeterminacy: those programmed into the work, the kind that brings complexity to it, and those that arise out of the unforseeable modifications in the circumstances of reception: hints about class and status and morality that don’t work anymore, because we live in a different time. The first ought to be preserved, the second not so much. Finally, Pavis gives a simple rule of thumb to interpretation:

If the mise en scene can, in a new concretization of the text, suggest new zones of intederminacy, organize possible trajectories of meaning between them, the classical dramatic text may recapture the glow tarnished by the passage of time and by banal interpretations. This phenomenon of recycling grants the classical text a perennial life by founding this life, not on permanent and unchanging significance, but on change and adaptation.

I hope this has explained both the crucial role that interpretation plays in the theatre, and why I was so keen to see The Wild Duck as an interpretation of a text.

However, Stone brushes all of this aside, and reads Ibsen as the writer of great family potboilers. His admiration of Ibsen is ex tempore, so to speak: he sees in them the themes of our time, structured by Ibsen’s dramaturgical skill into crafty stories, that have a vitality and finesse of structure that is still current today, and only need to be rescued from their 19th-century language and setting, and lo and behold, we have a contemporary play. Dusting, in other words. Vigorous dusting.

And so the contours of his approach emerge: Stone’s interpretations of Ibsen (as well as of Chekov) works have been increasingly faithful to the point of literalness (and somewhat reminiscent of the works of Thomas Ostermeier at Berlin’s Schaubuehne). This approach culminates in The Wild Duck, which has had a more thorough dusting than any Stone production so far. The play has been modernised; specifically, Australianized.

Herein lies the first problem with this production: in order to achieve the contemporary-Australianization of The Wild Duck, Stone has simply re-written the entire thing. It has not been lovingly restored, not even just bleached of every reference to Europe and the 19th-century – it has become a contemporary Australian play following the same general story line.

From five acts, it has been condensed into less than 90 minutes. New scenes have been added, with no correlation to the original. Characters have changed significantly. A great deal of characterization relies on entirely contemporary-Australian circumstances: the character of Hedvig is the typical product of the Australian private school system, and her parents quite concerned about paying for it. That kind of thing. The only thing intact is the rough outline of the story itself.

Stone has always done that, every one of his productions was a thorough re-writing, but The Wild Duck shows the crucial influence of Chris Ryan, who first collaborated with Stone as a co-writer on Thyestes. Where Stone’s work simply streamlined the dialogue and modernised the language (in an almost imperceptible way), both Stone/Ryan adaptations feature entire new scenes, of a Tarantinoesque quality: not just modern but pop-cultural, not just moving the plot along more swiftly but replacing filler scenes with specifically Australian, vernacular, urban boy banter. But Thyestes was methodical: every scene of the play was replaced by a quiet moment before or after the actual event. This was a courageous decision, it asked the audience to work for the meaning, and trusted them to do so. The Wild Duck is less systematic: most of the scenes are there, but many (especially in the second half) are purely made up. Many of the new scenes are purely expositional, explaining things that remained unsaid in Ibsen’s work: the specifics of the Ekdahl family ruin, Gregers Werle’s love life, and a post scriptum to the play. These are Stone/Ryan flights of fancy, redundant, chief vehicles by which this Wild Duck distances itself from Ibsen, and, also, inelegant.

This tactic of modernization by re-writing is really quite brutal. It purges Ibsen of everything but plot. More than an update, it is recontextualised and thoroughly made-over to comply with contemporary sensibility. It is basically a remake, of the kind practiced by Hollywood. As a strategy, it is not at all subtle, and it simply cannot be called interpretation. Nothing has been left to interpret. No evidence has remained of any interaction between a director and a text. The director has not tackled the text from any angle, because he has not had to. He has literally written himself out of having to deal with someone else’s work. The potentially difficult, unruly, resistant text, a text requiring directorial work and patience and research, has been replaced with its own pliable, submissive clone. I have previously suggested that Stone’s problems with Baal stem out of this practice of not actually reading the dramatic text, but re-writing it to suit his directorial vision, and I think, based on The Wild Duck, that it was a correct observation.

To interpret a text by making your entirely own version of it is not automatic theatrical anathema; of course not. However, the second and chief problem with this Wild Duck is that it does not simply translate the text into a contemporary Australian play, it reduces the original by doing so. Every interpretation makes choices of focus, but each good one broadens or deepens or re-focuses our view, and enriches our experience of the original in some way. This one doesn’t: it does not broaden or deepen or strengthen Ibsen in any way. It doesn’t reduce the play simply in length, number of characters, lines of dialogue. It reduces it thematically, in scope. It makes The Wild Duck narrower and shallower.

Stone/Ryan simplify or altogether remove a great deal of Ibsen’s text and subtext: the sociological complexity (key force in all Ibsen’s work); almost everything to do with class and money. Characters are simplified, and with it their relationships: Gregers Werle’s blind belief that relationships must be based on honesty is excised, bereaving of motivation the one character moving the plot. In Ibsen’s play, Hjalmar Ekdahl is a tragic anti-hero whose weakness of character only gradually becomes apparent: intellectual vanity, self-aggrandisement combined with self-pity, depressive tendencies. He is quite similar to April and Frank Wheeler from Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, people who need to be tragic, not small failures, if they cannot be great successes. Ibsen’s Gina Ekdahl treats her husband’s fury at her sort-of infidelity with an ironic, tongue-in-cheek deference, which is simply beautiful to read. Stone’s couple is largely undefined, fairly nondescript bar their Australianness. The allegorical comparison of Hjalmar’s beautiful melancholy to the defeatist behaviour of wild ducks is likewise lost.

Keith Gallasch has analysed the relationship of this dramatic text to Ibsen’s Duck in great detail already, in Real Time. I am not going to do the same work once over, so please read his analysis if you are not convinced by my short summary. I agree with Gallasch’s meticulously argued conclusion: the new play is thinner in concept, weaker. Ibsen wrote a play about the weakness of human character, about its inability to face the truth, and about the way we rely on telling ourselves lies about who we are in order to get through life. Stone and Ryan have written a play about divorce.

‘Remake’ is not the right word for this sort of appropriation, but it is closer and more correct than ‘interpretation’. Of interpretation, I saw very little. The play has been greatly simplified in order to match its time and place, and Simon Stone’s entire interpretive guiding logic seems to be modernization; making it relevant again (re-relevantisation?). Unfortunately, that is just not enough. No theatrical interpretation ever has tried to make its text anything other than relevant to its time and place: modernization cannot be the sole aim of an interpretation. That is very much confusing the bathwater for the baby.

And then, Stone achieves the modernization by removing a great deal of nuance and depth from Ibsen, most of its larger, philosophical undercurrent – effectively emphasising the melodrama. And he does it by adopting the easiest approach possible: total rewrite.

And finally the Chekhovian gun shoots: because Ibsen became the guiding spirit of so much contemporary English-language drama, with his era-unravelling dinner parties, this new text, by Stone and Ryan, becomes just another contemporary Australian play about how divorce damages children, not at all different in form from anything that might have been written afresh in 2011. Does it work? Well, people have enjoyed it across Sydney and Melbourne. It has the triple bonus of being an easily digestible contemporary play, of being well-written, funny and moving, and of somehow being a 19th-century classic at the same time, making one’s enjoyment of it vested with self-interest and perceived virtue. It shows us ourselves in full minute detail, and pulls us apart in a fine plot. This is why I prefaced this review by noting that there is nothing wrong with anyone enjoying this production: it is very consciously designed to be enjoyed, and it is skillfully executed to do so.

However.

However, there is more to theatre than just craft. There is interpretive and artistic ethics. There is no method to this interpretation, no discernible philosophy, no systematic dramaturgical approach, nothing but the imperative of ‘making it relevant’. It makes us see ourselves in Ibsen, but at the expense of a great deal of complexity in Ibsen. It does not reveal anything new, hidden in Ibsen’s work. It does not find contemporary relevance in Ibsen – it finds Ibsen in a contemporary story. It says: Ibsen is like us. It does not say: we are like Ibsen. It does not make one understand Ibsen better.

(And I suspect it does not make one understand Australia better either, because, however well translated, it is still a story from another time and place. The plot is still gripping, but teenage suicides and bastard children, family secrets and loss of bourgeois face are not themes of our day and time.)

And as interpretation, it fails. I thought long and hard about the equivalent sort of move I could draw a parallel. It is not quite pastiche, and it is not parody either. It is a simplifying analogy, rather, driven by a certain kind of evangelical, popularising impulse (and here the second Chekhovian gun goes off!). It is this:

But it is also, in another way, this:

Both are valid things to do, but can you see my point? Neither image offers an interesting new interpretation of Christianity, even of the tradition of visual interpretation of Mary and baby Jesus, per se. To do that, we need to go at least to Leonardo da Vinci. Or Wim Delvoye.

None of this may be perceptible to a person unfamiliar with Ibsen’s Duck. They might simply enjoy the story, and their own enjoyment of it. Since there is a great dearth of well-made stories about contemporary Australia, The Wild Duck, like The Slap, provides a necessary mirror to our society, however distorting, however illusory. And it seems quite clear that this production has been designed with that kind of audience member in mind, just like those African, evangelical Jesuses.

However, a production that simplifies in order to get the audience on its side is a production that patronises its audience. To an informed audience member, it says nothing new, nor interesting, about Ibsen, Norway, or the world. In Pavisian terms, no new zones of indeterminacy have been suggested. The work has been overexplained, simplified, narrowed, betrayed beyond all requirements of translation.

It remains competently made theatre, and one that achieves what it sets to achieve: turn Ibsen’s Wild Duck into a contemporary Australian play. However, like with Thomas Ostermeier, I do not see any validity or value in this approach. In order to give it any more credit, I need to be convinced that Slapifying Ibsen is a worthwhile aim in the first place.

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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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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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Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker. Photo: Heidrun Löhr, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

BEFORE WE COMMENCE, A POLITE REMINDER ON THE NATURE OF THE REAL IN THE THEATRE. ALTHOUGH EVERY ART FORM THAT SPEAKS OF THE WORLD IS TO SOME EXTENT MADE OF THE WORLD (THE TIMBER FRAME THAT STRETCHES THE CANVAS, AND SO FORTH), IN THEATRE THE SIGN AND THE THING ARE PARTICULARLY TIGHTLY ENMESHED. WHILE THE TYPED WORD ‘CHAIR’ STANDS FOR AN ACTUAL CHAIR, IT IS PRECISELY NOT A MATERIAL CHAIR. ON STAGE, IN CONTRAST, A THING IS ALWAYS BOTH A SIGN FOR A THING, AND THE THING ITSELF: A CHAIR ON STAGE IS A CHAIR THAT STANDS FOR A CHAIR.

Faker addresses us, the audience, as an autobiographical, even confessional work, but it is impossible to discuss it as such — once it enters stage space and stage time, ‘Gideon Obarzanek’ stands for Gideon Obarzanek, performing a sitting that stands for sitting, at a desk standing for a desk. It would be dramaturgically and critically naive to review ad hominem: this review can only talk about a staged character, ‘Gideon Obarzanek,’ not the person off-stage; and about the stage letter he receives from a theatrical pupil. The question of the percentage of ‘reality’ involved is, in this case, at the very least dumb, and at the very worst unethical.

The dramatic structure has ‘Obarzanek’ alternating between two activities: first, he reads out a letter sent to him by a young dancer, clearly smitten by ‘Obarzanek,’ who initiates a collaboration, hoping that he will “bring out the fabulous” in her, and then finds herself feeling progressively more vulnerable, let down, and growing increasingly more disappointed, hostile. The voice of the letter sounds clear notes of adoration, insecurity, need to be liked and desire to please, and although it is said to belong to a woman, it could easily belong to a young man. Asked to perform something she has not done before (“this task was designed in a way that I could only fail”), her insecurity starts coalescing into a perception of betrayal: “I stood there, humiliated.”

Continue reading “Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)” »

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Review: Baal (Simon Stone @ Malthouse)

On Sunday afternoon, I saw a production that wasn’t very good, of a play that wasn’t very good. The play was Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, the production Simon Stone’s, currently on at the Malthouse, and my Sunday was spent picking it apart.

Theatre in this town is an ideological business, and I should proclaim loudly, before I begin, that I am not ideologically opposed to anything that happens on the Malthouse stage: I think there are good reasons to think of Brecht as one of the most important dramatists and directors of the twentieth century; I am always interested in seeing Simon Stone’s work; and I believe theatre exists in present tense as well as in history. None of the procedures employed had to fail – but I would like to suggest, nonetheless, that they did.

So what is this Baal, I hear you ask? An early play of Brecht’s, written when he was twenty years old, staged first in 1923, before the musicals, before the Verfremdungseffekt is theorised. A youthful play, imperfect, a series of scenes hanging together with some music, rather than a dramaturgically cohesive work. But just as Brecht has been apt to turn every one of his shortcomings as an artist into a system, a theorised and passionately argued virtue, so has Baal been re-written and re-interpreted, by Brecht himself, as complying with his later political position. Baal writes poems, is cheered by the town, copulates, abandons women who then suicide, keeps multiple lovers, and generally wreaks havoc until he finally dies, in a hut, alone.

It is important to note that Baal in itself is, on the one hand, a beautiful work, an example of the bleak German Expressionism of the era, and an innovation in the Romantic tradition of depicting the artist as a thunderous, chaotic outsider – but one whose existence touches those around him in ways that are overall spiritually uplifting. It also follows in the tradition of Wedekind and Buchner, young Brecht’s likely reading material, of morally chaotic and emotionally turbulent theatre of bleak poetry. But it is also important to note that, innovation aside, Baal is exactly the sort of play one would expect from a twenty-year-old that has just managed to avoid being conscripted in World War I, and who is playing bohemia in and out of his comfortable middle-class home in Augsburg. It is the kind of work full of pictures, of images of reality, but it is clear that its own grasp on the meaning of what is depicted is not very strong. The author’s youth is visible in the fragmentary plotting (Brett Easton Ellis, a better mind than he is a writer, and not entirely out of context here, once said that a young writer will always have problems with narrative, because s/he doesn’t have sufficient life experience to understand how consequences shape out of actions), but also in the vague sense of what it is that is happening, who is it that is getting harmed and how, what drives these characters, and what the point ultimately is.

I may also add that, as John Fuegi asserts, at the time of writing Baal (or in this general period anyhow), a certain Bie Banholzer was sent off to the country to give birth to a little Brecht away from the respectable bourgeois milieu of Ausburg, that Brecht publicly celebrated his paternity (but not to the extent of taking care of the young mother and child), and that he soon began liaisons with a number of young women, lecturing each on the need for monogamy, and going so far as to have written contracts drafted. And by all accounts, Brecht spent the rest of his life having liaisons outside his marriage, collaborating with women and then claiming whole ownership of the written work, abandoning lovers, and generally behaving very poorly towards the women in his life.

These are important points, not because I am a moralist (I am not), or because I don’t think Brecht can do this and remain a great theatre theorist and director (he can and he is), but to point out that, while there is a certain kind of beauty in Baal, it is almost entirely a picturesque one, a beauty of style, Expressionism-cum-youthful-romanticism gleaned from reading Wedekind. I don’t think I’m reading too much into it if I see there a need to emulate his reading, both in his writing and in his life. And while this beauty of style (which Ellis also points out is a mark of a young writer) is certainly there, and while there is a certain detachment in the portrayal of the artist as a god of doom, I have failed to see any real critique in the text, or even a fundamental understanding of what it is that happens in it on a psychological level. The clarity of vision that characterises Brecht’s later works, the ability to present the world as a moral machine of sorts, is not here – but neither is there a psychologically complex universe of the previous generation: Ibsen, Chekhov. Instead, the whole thing works as a 1920s sort of Brett Easton Ellis novel: a series of foul actions committed by aloof characters leaves us with no sense of purpose.

And here problems start occurring for Stone, the director. 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 at this he has been very good. Stone’s interpretations of Chekhov and Ibsen have been quite rightfully praised as some of the best ‘theatre theatre’ this country has seen recently. But these dramatists’ work function in a radically different way to Brecht’s: they are all Nordic atmosphere, meaningful silences, socio-political subtext beneath the respectable bourgeois surface. 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. Re-writing has been an important part of his success: Stone’s productions are largely plays of his own, following carefully another playwright’s dramaturgy. (As a side note, the success of this approach is also an example of a young writer circumventing his own shortcomings on narrative grounds, yet doing the most of his deftness with style.)

The problem with Brecht is that he is precisely the opposite kind of writer. 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. The early scenes were much stronger than the later, because that balance was gotten right. In the opening scene, a group of elegantly-clad women toast Baal, dressed in tight black jeans with an electric guitar. He sings of diarrhoea and hell. They want to publish him and make him famous. He wants a glass of wine. They think he is a great artist. He wants to fuck one. Another says, I made my money cutting down the Amazon forest, but now I want to sponsor art. Nobody talks like that in real life! But because we recognise the reality behind it, because we see the grunge god Kurt Cobain and the goth cowboy Nick Cave in Baal, and because we recognise the capitalist arts-enthusiasts, the scene works exactly the way Brecht needs to work – as satire laced with arsenic.

Photo by Jeff Busby.

An interesting question opens up here, one certainly dear to any theatre-goer – the question of the bright young man, and our adoration of him. To have him appear in a production by a bright young male director makes it all the more interesting.

But then, as it progresses through copulation, rain, collapsing sets, red knickers, prams and babies, multiple deaths, it is less and less certain what this production is attempting to do. It seemed that, as the end neared, Stone was trying to strip Baal down, to let its universal message shine through – but, as previously discussed, Baal doesn’t know what it is, that essence isn’t there. And the hints pointing at the extra-theatrical reality get increasingly blunt: while prams and hoodies, amps and cans of bourbon&coke are still able to transport us somewhere, what are we to make of Chris Ryan in stilettos and bikini, except remember Michael Kantor? By the end of the show, the stage has been drenched in three kinds of rain, all sorts of transgressions have been depicted on stage, and Baal’s dead body is hauled out by two friends – housemates? – making ironic remarks about artists; the overall atmosphere is that of the end of something puzzling, multifarious, but ultimately unsatisfying – not unlike a typical Kantor production.

The other problem is the text, on which the actors occasionally choke, and which is frequently delivered as a sort of overblown declamation – very unlike Stone’s customary subtle direction. It has been pointed out to me that Stone’s penchant for re-writing the play entirely may have caused the problems here: perhaps too much Brecht was left in the text?

But Stone’s is nonetheless a valiant attempt, and a better Brecht than I have seen in this town in a long while. Some features of the production were very interesting: the 6-actress female chorus as a generalised aggrieved population; the extended nudity of almost everyone, which created voluptuous and abject carnality instead of Melbourne theatre’s customary rosy view of sex (see Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass). However, in a production that generally doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do, these momentary successes of form and meaning are islands in a sea of confusion.

Baal, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright, directed by Simon Stone. Set and lighting Nick Schlieper, costumes by Mel Page, composition and sound design Stefan Gregory. With Bridig Gallacher, Geraldine Hakewill, Luisa Hastings Edge, Shelly Laumann, Oscar Redding, Chris Ryan, Lotte St Clair, Katherine Tonkin and Thomas M Wright. Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until April 23; Sydney Theatre Company, May 7-June 11.

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RW: Thyestes

I have seen some very good theatre recently in a very short succession: not more than 3 weeks apart, I saw what I think are likely to be the best three shows in Melbourne this year. These are Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop, version 1.0’s This Kind of Ruckus and Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. I’ve been meaning to dedicate a great deal of time to each one of them, but life keeps getting in the way. (I’ve been badly unwell.) But let’s start with one.


Mark L Winter and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Fortunately, Thyestes sold out as it opened, and so did the short extension to the season. I have to say I was very, very pleased: not just because it is excellent theatre which deserved to sell out, but because it absolved me from the responsibility to write quick praise in order to promote the show (the silly burden which all reviewers feel, however small their readership). It’s given me time to really consider its propositions.

I’ve been tossing it left and right in my head for weeks now, Thyestes, and it only gets better as I do. It is possibly the best work that either Hayloft or Black Lung have done so far, and certainly among the best two or three we will see in Melbourne this year, local or international. It deserves a return season. Most importantly, it is both brave and bold, and highly accomplished. Last year, when I got cross with Cameron for dismissing Hayloft and Black Lung’s 3xSisters (for lack of accomplishment where there were many ideas), I did it because I thought it was important to encourage courageous formal and conceptual inquiry. I was worried Hayloft Project might, as many young theatre-makers have before them, settle for the limited set of achievements they have been praised for early on, rather than grow as artists, a path that’s always much less readily rewarded. 3xSisters was a courageous experiment in theatre-making, on a scale rarely attempted by Melbourne’s self-funded independent theatre, and even if its accomplishments were rough and probably not entirely intended, a year on it still remains fresh in my memory as a very good theatrical work. Had it been a film, I dare say it would have been amply reappraised in the years to come. Being theatre, the best I can hope is that blogs will keep it unforgotten.

Thyestes is a whole other story, a project as radical as it is rigorously put together. If with 3xSisters the beauty was in the chaos, here I am in no doubt that the creative team were in full control of the final result, that every effect was intended. It demonstrates tremendous growth for Simon Stone, Mark Winter, Thomas Henning and Anne-Louise Sarks (who have all worked on 3xSisters). Chris Ryan, whom we have encountered in Hayloft’s Platonov and The Promise, but whom I – perhaps unfairly – didn’t see as a theatre-maker prior to Thyestes, turns out to be an excellent creative collaborator in his own right. But most impressively, and as the weeks went by I kept underlying this point in my mind with a mental marker, what strikes me as significant about Thyestes is that its own aspirations are so much higher than that of its own context. It’s a theatre show by young theatre-makers, produced in Malthouse’s fringe Tower space, and it shames most mainstage theatre in the city. Yes, many eyes were eagerly awaiting the opening night, but Stone and his creative team would have gotten high praise for much less.

Hayloft’s version retells Seneca’s dramatisation of the Greek myth (or, rather, the history of the house of Atreus, since the story spans three generations of sons) through a very simple dramaturgical frame. So simple and clear, indeed, that there are exactly two moments of surprise in the entire evening. The first is the beginning, when the surtitles rattle off the summary of the scene (Thyestes and Atreus are convinced by mother Hippodamia to kill their half-brother and heir to the throne), and the screen lifts on a traverse stage to reveal three young men in contemporary clothing, listening to music and having a casual discussion about girlfriends, sex and a flight to Guatemala. The second is in the middle, when the count jumps from scene 6 to 14, the murder of Atreus. The conceit could not be simpler: the surtitles propel the narrative, but it is the in-between moments we see, mundane conversations; brotherly rivalry; games of ping-pong. So simple, indeed, that the day after I saw it I was considering dismissing Thyestes for imaginative poverty.

For, let’s be honest, there is only so much Tarantino the world needs, and Tarantino himself is productive enough to satisfy the demand. The day after I saw this production, I was wondering mainly if it was apparent to everyone else how much debt Thyestes owes to Reservoir Dogs. The ghost of 90s cinema, its casual gun-toting, pop-cultural referencing and drawn-out, banal conversations haunts the oeuvre of Black Lung (whose Thomas Henning and Mark Winter have had significant creative input on both Thyestes and 3xSisters), appearing in the most unlikely places like some terrible rash: see Mark Winter’s bit of 3xSisters (via Scorsese).

Since every generation comes of age during a particular fad, so did our generation, perhaps, internalise Tarantino the way neither the previous nor the successive have: one for being too old not to be critical, the other because Joanna Newsom and The Quirky Indie Cinema appeared. And, fifteen years since Pulp Fiction, how much does it matter? What traumas are we tackling when we deal with such subject matter as friends shooting each other in cold blood, while Roy Orbison is playing? Mainly cinematic ones, I suspect. It is a kind of violence, cool and detached, ironic, swift, that very few people have ever experienced – I, for example, never. And while I see some of the appeal, the aesthetic appeal, and while I understand that some tropes get engraved in our collective young minds at ages too young to argue – I wonder: how does the generation of the Quirky Indie Cinema understand something like Thyestes? Does it have a relevance for them, does it stand alone as a meaningful artefact, or is it simply an incomprehensible set of images, point of reference lost? And without the reference, is there a purpose for these tropes?

Another possibility is that the drawn-out banality of the conversations (brothers reminiscing about childhood, long descriptions of sex, discussions on Roy Orbison) assumes a macabre shimmer because of what we know happens before or after: that a semiotic polyphony, shall we say, appears between the text and the subtext (semiotic and not just semantic; that we see two things at once). This certainly happens. But in itself, it is insufficient as argument of quality. If this was all that Thyestes did, it would be a fine, but not a great work.

Then, however, in Richard Sennett’s writing I came across this:

The difference between the Roman past and the modern present lies in what privacy means. The Roman in private sought another principle to set against the public, a principle based on religious transcendence of the world. In private we seek out not a principle but a reflection, that of what our psyches are, what is authentic in our feelings. We have tried to make the fact of being in private, alone with ourselves and with family and intimate friends, an end in itself.

(…) Under the modern code of private meaning, the relations between impersonal and intimate experience have no clarity. We see society itself as “meaningful” only be converting it into a grand psychic system. We may understand that a politician’s job is to draft or execute legislation, but that work does not interest us until we perceive the play of personality in political struggle. A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programs he espouses.

Because this psychological imagination of life has broad social consequences, I want to call it by a name that may at first seem inapt: this imagination is an intimate vision of society. “Intimacy” connotes warmth, trust, and open expression of feeling. But precisely because we have come to expect these psychological benefits throughout the range of our experience, and precisely because so much social life which does have a meaning cannot yield these psychological rewards, the world outside, the impersonal world, seems to fail us, seems to be stale and empty.

I want to leave these paragraphs for now.


Mark L Winter, Thomas Henning and Chris Ryan. Photo by Jeff Busby.

In the program notes, Stone writes:

These myths are real. They have repeated themselves endlessly throughout history with minor changes in name and location. They continue to repeat themselves in our time. They are not distant representations of the vagaries of a time gone by. The fascinations of the Greeks and Romans are barely different to our contemporary obsessions. The epic dimension is misleading: on closer inspection even the most absurdly epic tale of incest, murder, rape, infidelity, transmogrification or resurrection reflects something within us waiting to express itself. The Greeks had the courage to make their metaphors extreme, unsettling and almost indistinguishable from reality; the Romans had the brazenness to bring these images from off-stage to centre-stage with a terrifying realism. Artaud had nothing on the Romans.

Consider the irreconcilable difference between this proposition, which Thyestes by all means proves, that the horror of the Greek myth is extratemporal, and the shadow of datedness over Tarantino. What to do with it? On the one hand, after years of contemporising classics by, exempli gratia Thomas Ostermeier, it’s reasonable to ask why we contemporise. Is it just to give vividness to an ancient text or story, to do justice to a classic? There is a certain binging quality to Thyestes that I’ve also found in Ostermeier’s Nora and Hedda Gabler, an overabundance of things, of set, of contemporary slang, of clothing articles, of holes of incongruity sewn up. The effect is curiously akin to television – no suspension of disbelief is necessary.

But neither this is the right answer. The key piece of puzzle, instead, is in Chris Ryan’s role as the multiplicity of women in the show. His performance as the uber-realistic, Green-bag-carrying wife, or violated bride, is not just a masterly demonstration of how little acting has to do with physical attributes, and how much with illusion. (Although it is a bona fide metamorphosis, yes.) What is interesting, instead, is that there are no women on stage. Not only does this pull the mythical universe tighter together into a boyish world of rivalry and revenge; but it also shuts it from any external ontology. Or, put more simply, there is no public realm in Thyestes: it is a sealed private world.

Perhaps this will demonstrate my theatre-viewing naivete, but there are productions, usually terribly naturalistic ones, in which I can just about picture the outside world. In which the materiality of the stage does not win over the evocative descriptions of those events somewhere else. Thyestes is one of them: between the screen lifting and falling, my mind was whirling between the public and the private realm. Why?, I don’t know. Because the stage was so suffocatingly private, is my guess. Because everything happening was a kind of game with no consequences, in which all that mattered was the dynamic between two, sometimes three people, and in which rules were written by boys, the way Tarantino’s films happen in a boy-universe. If all women were played by a man, this was an aesthetic and political choice. Not only was it less gruesome to watch sexual violence inflicted on a male body playing female, but having a female body there would have, I suspect, broken the illusion. A female presence, body, voice, would not have played by the same rules, would have exposed the game for the banality that it is. (It makes more sense to me, now, while so many such films and plays and books feature no female characters whatsoever, and why, when they do, the women are caricatured into the extreme or left as vacuous enigmas – think Motoko Kusanagi, Ramona Flowers, the Bride.) It was interesting to note that Ryan played girlfriends and women that assumed caring and matey roles, rather than sensual or sexual; the nagging question being, after a while, whether this is an accurate depiction of Australian women (someone, somewhere, noted that Australian culture is hyper-masculine, posing problems for expression of femininity for both women and men), or another way to lessen the feminine quotient in the show. (The second question is whether this is a ludicrous question.)

A circular semiology opens here, with the 90s cinema, Thyestes, the Greek myth, and the reality it points to (Robert Graves refers the myth of the House of Atreus to actual sibling kings and a throne dispute) all pointing to each other, all signifying one another, all cases of a boy-universe, in which women are just colourful background, like a deck of collectable cards, the possession of which positions the players hierarchically, into relative winners and losers. The point being not that Thyestes is the male equivalent of a chick flick (dude-play?) – which it certainly is – but that Tarantino’s universe is an apt place where to translate the myth of the House of Atreus.

When Sennett writes about the fall of the public man, the ontological shift he refers to (between the Roman for whom the home was a place for reflection on the public world, and a baby boomer for whom it was a coccoon), is the shift between tragedy as Commonly Understood (as a public event, shall we generalise?), and whatever happens in Thyestes. The ugly underside of Thyestes, which I suppose is where its emotional impact hides, is a private sordidness which has become unanchored in any sort of public life. (Something similar happens to certain kinds of American indie, say Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Todd Solonz’s films, in which violence and suffering have lost any relationship to grand ideas, purpose, or even audience, and instead float in a landscape of outer-suburban nursing homes, endless freeways, squalid rental apartments. Such stories are that harder to bear for the complete absence of grand narrative that could underpin the enormity of the horror they depict.)

The story could go on: some critics have written about Nietzsche, some about Heidegger, some about Benjamin and Bernhardt. It is, certainly, a production that can bear the weight of all these interpretations. Like any truly interesting work of art, it only gets better on rereading.

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RW: The Trial, sociologically

What is it?
Franz Kafka’s well-known novel of the trial of Jozef K. by an organisation he doesn’t know, for a crime he is not aware of, in a stage adaptation by Louise Fox. Directed by Matthew Lutton, the next wunderkind on the block: Lutton has directed a number of things in Perth, as the artistic director of his company, ThinIce, as a mainstay in the Perth Festival, has been regularly working in Sydney (including directing The Duel, based on Dostoyevsky, and The Mystery of the Genesis for STC in 2009), but has so far worked in Melbourne only once, in 2008, when he directed Tartuffe for the Malthouse, as a last-minute replacement for Michael Kantor. By and large, The Trial is his Melbourne debut.

Is it good?
Yes, very much so. I am tempted to call it a very Sydney kind of quality, but I won’t, lest it puts Melburnians off. It’s an exuberant, highly energetic production, which marries a great text (Fox’s adaptation is snappy, clear and often hilarious, without any lapses into unwarranted, un-Kafkan lyricism) with a great young team. The cast is excellent: Ewen Leslie’s abilities are not particularly stretched by the demands of his character, but Hamish Michael, Rita Kalnejais and in particular Belinda McClory (whom we don’t see in Melbourne often enough!) clearly revel in the chance to play a large number of roles, often within the same scene. It’s a very playful production, one that has more ideas than form or concept, but most of the time it’s an absolute joy to behold. In Melbourne, we often get bogged down in a terrible literal sourness: we like to condemn shows on ‘unevenness’, which often means an excess of ideas. Sydney is more forgiving of that, and also less interested in all those evenly boring productions that Melbourne abounds with at certain times of the year. I do recommend it, highly.

What does it do?
It amps Kafka up into a whirlwind of sexed-up, clamouring absurdity. Much of this effect is achieved through reduction: the novel is condensed into an intervalless 2-hour, single-set, rotating-box farce of a sort, in which seven actors embody a swirling panoply of characters. The uncertain paranoia of The Trial is given a perfect theatrical embodiment: recycling sets and actors is enough of a theatrical convention that the constant repetition of place and person strikes the audience as eerie and claustrophobic, but also, somehow, understandable. As the set is repeatedly stripped of stage props to reveal only more (bare-backed) set, it embodies without comment a conspiracy theory that both is and isn’t correct. After all, seeing through the illusion of reason rarely provides any consolation to Kafka’s characters.

More theoretically, please.
At times, this production is more hysterical than tragicomic, which leads me to believe that Lutton is not as familiar with his source material as one would wish. Franz Kafka’s world, immensely coherent across his oeuvre, is a world of mad bureaucracies. Long before Max Weber defined bureaucracy in sociology, Kafka’s protagonists were trapped in worlds run by nameless and faceless organisations, in which the person delivering the death verdict or the execution was merely following the orders of some distant superior, worlds in which the cogs turned seemingly by themselves, with no decision-making ever taking place, and no way to interfere.

A bank clerk in the Austria-Hungary, one of the earliest bureaucratised empires, Kafka knew the logic of this system well: in a bureaucracy, there is no discretionary power, no personal responsibility, and no accountability. While his work was often understood as a premonition of the industrialised execution of Jews in the Third Reich, and of the Soviet terror, it is just as applicable as an allegory of those capitalist sagas in which one wrestles with customer service, welfare agencies, call centres in India, or tries to extract personal responsibility from a corporation after an industrial catastrophe.

Bureaucracy is the basic form in which production takes place today – of goods, services, and governance. Kafka’s genius was in recognising and giving a literary life to the moral catastrophe that this state of affairs is. If nobody can be held responsible for anything, not even for violence, then tragedy cannot exist, because tragedy hinges on personal choice. What remains is a sort of tragicomedy, only partially legible to its protagonists: things happen that are sometimes terrible, sometimes fortunate, often simply funny. The difference between opaque and clear vanishes: to see through the conspiracy of the trial is no more meaningful than seeing through the conspiracy of the outsourced call centre: the reason why it exists is not the reason why it makes us suffer. The ultimate revelation is as banal as the exposed plywood set. We exit the realm of the tragic, and enter the statistic, the merely quantifiable, the heartlessly rational.

Kafka’s works are often phantasmagoric in a way which is deeply un-lyrical: his sentences are short, his words simple, his eye unsentimental. Yet by the end of this production, Jozef K. is sobbing hysterically, his death accompanied by a violent stage rotation and deeply distressed music, which leads me to believe that this crucial quality of Kafka’s work was completely missed by Lutton. In the end of the novel, remember, Jozef K. not only accepts his execution, but is embarrassed for not having the strength to perform his own execution. The very last sentence of the novel reads: “It was as if the shame of it would outlive him.” Why is this important? Because the former solution is easy; the latter more difficult. It is gratifying and safe to read the gulag in The Trial – a prophesy of evils we recognise as such, committed by people other than us, whom history has already condemned.

Kundera has repeatedly argued that Jozef K., right from the beginning of the novel, acts like a guilty man – which is to say, a man who internalises his accusation. To stage him as a heroic rebel is to miss the Kafkan subtlety altogether: Jozef K. is not so much a brave fighter for justice, as one who goes through the motions, deeply unsure of his own innocence when faced with the external consensus. This is the universal condition of the man before the Law; only action heroes and psychotics can disregard the Law completely (and there may be a psychotic lurking inside every action hero, if we are to trust Alan Moore). Jozef K is a man who believes in the world that executes him. This is the complication that makes Kafka a great writer. (It also makes me wonder how much more exciting Leslie’s performance could have been, had he had the freedom to play a morally torn man, rather than just a romantic misfit of sorts.)

However, Lutton abundantly makes up for this slightness of reading by the sheer exuberance of this production. It may be a work built on sheer instinct, but Lutton’s instincts are often spot on. Hyperbolic exaggeration (somewhat naively) restores some of the crucial elements often forgotten in the conventional interpretations of Kafka. For example, artist Titorelli’s CHECK young admirers, played by the entire male and female cast, are literally crawling into his studio through every door on stage, scratching the walls and cat-calling. This gesture befits the material perfectly: many gloomy interpreters of Kafka completely fail to notice the humour permeating his work, humour part-Jewish and part-Czech, absurd (but not clownish), black (but not bleak), and not so much self-deprecating as self-deriding. Lutton’s Trial has plenty of humour, of the best kind. The production is also brimming with a ridiculous eroticism: there are whippings and undergarments and sexy nurses everywhere. The usual reduction of Kafka to an ascetic priest-like creature is completely absent.

However, this re-interpretation opens up questions it doesn’t answer. It faithfully keeps the priest’s story of a man wishing to gain entry to the law (known as the ‘Before the Law’ parable, and the single most famous part of The Trial). However, not only does the parable sit awkwardly within the performance, suddenly shifting the register from grotesquely humorous to mystically simple. It also sits awkwardly within the novel itself. Why? Because it isn’t necessarily meant to be there. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend who posthumously compiled The Trial from the fragments of Kafka’s writings, was the person who made that decision. Brod, while a dear friend, was also the most famous misinterpreter of Franz Kafka, assigning him the status of saint, infamously purging his biography of evidence of brothel-attendance, and providing us with the first accounts of Franz as a spiritual, almost religious writer (Walter Benjamin would dismiss Brod’s interpretation as kitsch). “Before the Law” was the only part of The Trial to be published during Kafka’s life, as a separate short story. As such, it is a perfect little gem of brutal absurdism. As a penultimate chapter to a complex novel, it swings its overall tone strongly, perhaps too strongly, towards the mystic. It’s often taken to contain the essence of The Trial, but that probably has a lot to do with its crisp, succint tightness – as befits a short story. Lutton’s production, which greatly avoids the perfunctory mysticism, clearly doesn’t do it consciously enough to recognise these contradictions. (I will point out here that Cameron Woodhead, in his review in The Age, very predictably fails to understand the complexity of the issue, bemoaning the farce and praising the parable. As if seriousness, as opposed to humour, denotes Art.)

Conclusion?
This lack of understanding is enough to bar The Trial from being called a masterpiece. It’s a youthful work, its flaws gaping open. However, as a young director’s work, it is among the best and most promising Melbourne has seen in a while. It shows a remarkable new talent, and a great theatrical instinct, in Matthew Lutton. It is also an absolute joy to attend: funny, crafty, and almost impeccably executed. Most importantly, as Alison Croggon picked up, there is an honest truth in this project, which alone makes it worth seeing. With no holding back, the artistic team has clearly catapulted itself right in the centre of a text and a problematic they may not quite have a grip on, but were determined to tackle with all their capacity. This refusal to play it safe is too rarely seen to be missed.

The Trial. Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 – October 16.

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