Tag Archives: Malthouse

Review: Desire, psychoanalysis, and Sappho… in 9 fragments

First on the general qualities of this work. Sappho… in 9 fragments premiered the Stork Hotel in 2007, before getting picked up by the Malthouse, tidied up and restaged by Marion Potts, the incoming AD thereof. A monodrama, written, conceived and performed by the fierce Jane Montgomery Griffiths, a Classics scholar in her own right. It’s not so much a voicing of Sappho, nor a dissection of her work, as it is a performance with the missing poet at its centre. How much do we know with certainty about this highly esteemed poet from Lesbos? Very little, as no reliable historical accounts of her life have survived, and her work in fragments only. Sappho is a sealed safe, but Griffiths gives voice to her nonetheless: her loves, her rage and indignance at various interpretations (always by men), be they pictorial or textual. In her hands, theatre performance becomes an act of reading, thinking, imagining.

Jane Marion Griffiths. Photo credits: Jeff Busby.

Second on its high quality. Sappho… in 9 fragments is first-class theatre, and if there is a show this year that should be seen by a wide audience as a demonstration of what moneyed theatre should do, then this is the one. It is made out of good ideas, of smart solutions. Naked, skin-headed Griffiths emerges from a glass tank filled with ambrosia, which slowly leaks throughout the performance, creating a honey-coloured pond on the floor until all that remains from the glorious poet is a tray of meat. Anna Cordingley and Paul Jackson’s set and lighting design marries absolute minimalism of means with a thorough clarity of signification: it is a high achievement of a design sensibility particular to Australian theatre. Griffiths’s words – combining an original narrative, literary scholarship, historical observations and free translations of Sappho – build a text that is intelligent, witty, full-bodied and highly dramatic. Her physical presence is extraordinary, bringing to life a stage creature that is soft and hard, strong and sensitive, sometimes raging and sometimes completely paralysed.

Third on its aesthetic lineage. Sappho… is a classic work of high post-modernism. Sappho is an author singularly bereft of a voice, and Griffiths’s scholarly dramaturgy revels in weaving and slashing through approaches and interpretations, less and more facetious misreadings. There is no unified Sappho at the end of the show, but this is not a tragedy. Rather, Sappho becomes a mirror to the world. She remains a ghost (angry, desiring, doubting, polite), and despite the stage presence of one undressed woman, her presence is immaterial, her agency only in bringing forth the multiple fragments out of which she is constructed. I have not often seen works of this kind on Melbourne stages, and I suspect it’s because they require deep familiarity with a subject, which can only be attained with time. Our theatre-makers are notoriously young, and dramaturgs, the one profession usually engaged in deep research, are not a frequent presence in our theatre companies.

Fourth on its philosophical lineage, and those interested in a pure review can stop reading now. Sappho… (just like post-modernism itself) echoes many of the psychoanalytical ideas about desire, but also, interestingly, about women. Of all the twentieth-century ideas about women, this may be the most consistently expressed one: woman as a lacuna, as a set of poses to be adopted, roles to be played. The female as the second sex: made, not autochtonous. The woman as the seen, not the seer; the spoken-of, not the speaker. As the object of desire, an empty vessel, to be filled at will. The language, the symbolic order, interprets women rather than letting them speak. Hence the importance of stylisation in the definition of femininity: fashion, make-up, hair, bodily poses. Without them, what is a woman? Is there some sort of primordial femininity behind the dyes and the paints and the frills, just waiting to come out – as some feminists have claimed (the moderate ones)? Or is there no woman to speak of until one becomes one, as other feminists (Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler among the most well-known) have argued? As the object of desire, as the first and foremost object of desire, a woman cannot have a voice, does not exist but as an empty vessel. (This idea is very nicely expressed in Christopher Nolan’s film The Inception, in which Leonardo Di Caprio explains the logic of dreams to Ellen Page, the designer of dreams: “If you create something secure [like a bank vault] the mind automatically fills it with something it wants to protect.” Is the feeling of being loved, but not seen, not immediately recognisable to the reader? For being desired as a projection of the other person’s desires? As a safe for their most intimate thoughts and feelings, but not their own?)

At this point psychoanalysis splinters between being helpful to feminism, and being supremely unhelpful. On the one hand, it is asserted that all seeing is masculine, that all desire is male; women artists explore this status as objects of desire, knowingly. On the other, is this not a consolidation of an ontology which may be universal, but is not necessarily unavoidable? When Germaine Greer bemoans female artists as self-indulgent and even, paradoxically, auto-objectifying, what underlines her critique is the sense that not much is to be gained by insisting on the gender split between those who desire, and those who are desired; that the line is not carved in stone. The interpretative dilemma is real: on the one hand, women are still afflicted by illnesses in which the body acts out what the language (the symbolic) cannot express: hysteria once, anorexia today. On the other hand, there are more varities of female life today than when Freud was compiling his discoveries.

Sappho is a perfect woman as case study: revered, admired, analysed, voiceless. A perfect empty vessel, and precisely for that reason an excellent appearance of a secret, a hole in the centre of the symbolic order (quot Zizek). What interests me in Griffiths’s work is the way the speaking subject is primarily the object of desire, and rarely its owner. When she speaks as Sappho, she is the voice of someone whose subjectivity has undergone torturous interpretative transformation: she is a multitude of analyses, not a voice. When she speaks as Atthis, a young woman object of Sappho’s poems, in a contemporary incarnation as young admirer of a successful actress, her attraction is overwhelmingly the reflection of the actress’s attraction to her. The dramatic resolution of the quandary of Sappho in a self-conscious, awkward character of a young woman desired and then abandoned seems to me the weakest dramaturgical aspect of the work. After an exploration of the missing female subjectivity, we return exactly where we started: to the woman as object of desire. It is as if the entire twentieth century has taught us only to embrace this desire, not to master it for ourselves. In this sense, Sappho… in 9 fragments strikes me as conservative, and unsatisfactory.

I can broadly agree with Greer: there must be something beyond the acceptance of woman as the eternal object, beyond pole dancing, lipstick feminism, Sex and the City. The most striking comment on this came to me from the unlikely source: Judith Butler. Despite her reputation as the philosopher that negates femininity, she often returns to this simple idea that desire is empowering, transformative. In one interview, Butler criticised the notion of political lesbianism:

“I always hated this saying that feminism is the theory and lesbianism must be the practice. It desexualizes lesbians. I became a lesbian at the age of fourteen. And I didn’t know anything about politics. I became a lesbian as I wanted somebody very deeply. “

I remember the effect this statement had on me when I first read it: a woman speaking simply about ‘wanting someone’ was so unlike anything I had heard women say. So much of the feminist project seems to have become about fending off desire, through initiatives against sexual harassment, objectification, pornography, and so forth. Sappho… may be just that: a fending off. What a strange conclusion from a work about a poet who wrote about love herself, who wrote about desire long before women became the ‘hole at the centre of the symbolic order’. (But was it before? Here is that problem with classics: one is never sure. I may be committing just such intellectual violence.) I wished for more, or for something else. Perhaps I wanted to see 9 fragments of Judith Butler.

Sappho…in 9 fragments, written and performed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. Staging by Marion Potts, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition and sound design Darrin Verghagen. Malthouse Theatre. Runs until August 21.

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REVIEW: The Threepenny Opera

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis. Photo: Garth Oriander.

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

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

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

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

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

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Malthouse season 2

Michael Kantor’s last season (just announced) looks strangely like a Best Of Malthouse 2005-2010 (subtitle: The Kantor Years), or a Tribute To… CD (Melbourne indie theatre does Malthouse OR Malthouse does Melbourne indie… you choose). And not just that, but a Christmas edition with two bonus tracks (Great International Name + the understudy makes an appearance).

All the people that Kantor’s Malthouse has been supporting are gathered again: here are the local darlings Hayloft, again working with Black Lung on Thyestes; there is Ranters with Intimacy (a sequel to Affection?), there is Lucy Guerin’s new pop-cultural dance (with set design by Gideon Obarzanek of Chunky Move, another friend of the Malthouse); there is 1927, again after Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; Barrie Kosky’s most restrained and elegant The Tell-tale Heart returns after a sold-out season back in 2007; and Meredith Penman, a recent VCA graduate, frequently seen in Hayloft projects, and an absolutely exquisite actress (see her in Richard III currently playing at the MTC) brings her 2009 Sydney show, A Woman in Berlin, back to Melbourne. Is almost makes you feel outraged that she would have been allowed to open it there, and not here.

Then there is the new bright boy, Matthew Lutton, casting the new bright star Ewen Leslie in another dramatization of Kafka: The Trial, both for the Malthouse and the STC. Boy heroes make me yawn, but I am as curious to see Mr Lutton’s famed direction as anyone else, so good on the Malthouse for bringing him over. Meg Stuart is being brought over in the first international guest performance really worth its salt: Maybe Forever is only 3 years old, Meg Stuart is acclaimed, but has not quite finished saying what she has to say, and I am quite marvelled that the Malthouse would be so ambitious as to invite her over. It is also the only performance of the season I will miss (by being in Croatia), alas. The final bonus track is the pre-introduction of Marion Potts with Sappho… in 9 fragments (as ‘stager’, not director), before she takes on the artistic direction of the Malthouse in 2011.

I’d also point out that Things on Sunday, Malthouse’s talk program, looks particularly good this year, with a performance/interview with Heiner Mueller, rest in peace, and the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture delivered by said Marion Potts on the turnover in artistic directors that is sweeping the country. And why not?

All in all, it’s a bit of a last ball, where we want to see all our friends perform something little. And it’s good like that. One characteristic of Kantor’s Malthouse has been a strong sense of community: there was a house way of doing things, there were friends of the Malthouse, a number of people got a lot of space to do work. It has bred some bitterness around town, by those who felt left out of the inner circle, but it has been not altogether unsuccessful. At the end of the Kantor era, Malthouse is not a lukewarm and/or beige place claiming to represent everyone while being nondescript and of no interest to anyone in particular. It is a distinct theatre, full of character, with a programming tradition that has an audience, a palette, strengths and weaknesses. And vision, which is very unusual for an institution its size in this country.

I am looking forward to a change of direction with Marion Potts, but I suspect the second half of the 2010 season will be very successful as a nostalgia-inducer. We will sit around the pit and reminisce about Paul Capsis, gollywog puppets, and the missed opportunity to turn the Gallipoli story into a musical.

All the details of the Malthouse season 2 can be gleaned here.

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RW: Elizabeth: Quasi per caso una donna

It is tempting to be extra generous to Michael Kantor in his last year of tenure as the artistic director of the Malthouse. “Elizabeth: Quasi per caso una donna”, a Dario Fo romp with the great Julie Forsyth in the title role, might have indeed been his swan song. Unfortunately, if the rest of his departing 2010 keeps the same tone, Melbourne will remember him as a purveyor of “gratuitous camp”, as Cameron Woodhead so aptly summarized his own opinion of Elizabeth in The Age.

I would like to illustrate the problems of this production by referring you to “Moi… Lolita”, a chart-topping French pop song from 2000. The video depicted the then-14-year-old Alizeée as a country girl in a skin-coloured skimpy dress, taking money from a man, getting a bus with her little sister, dancing in a discotheque surrounded by much older men, while the little sister is having a cocktail in a corner. She sings, very approximately, It’s not my fault if when I’m about to give up I see others, all ready to throw themselves at me’

My question is: how long does the average citoyen d’Australie (or another Anglophone country) last before getting very upset about this sexualisation-of-the-youngest business? I would guess not long. Try. Time yourselves. Let me know.

There is an essential seriousness at the bottom of the Anglo heart, still one foot in Protestantism, that makes it very hard to accept that this is just a pop song for a million kids to dance to all over the world. It is a seriousness about the meaning of life, but also about its semiotics, and it particularly comes to the fore in camp, the most English-speaking of aesthetic sensibilities.

Yes, pace Susan Sontag, camp is aestheticization of life, a kind of artifice, quotation marks around life, and yes it works through attenuation or exaggeration of surface – but, it seems to me, there is a melancholic disavowal at its very heart. Camp is a way of doing something and not doing it at the same time – either because you appear to be achieving the opposite (Sontag notes the camp taste for the androgynous body), or because you are overdoing it so much that you must be just pretending – and if its weighty mannerism completely eclipses its content, it is only because the content is somehow pushed away (too painful, embarrassing, or denied). What is disavowed, of course, is a matter of utmost seriousness. Homosexuality tends towards camp for this reason – it is an unprosecutable version of itself. There is something clumsy and unachieved, unaccomplished at the heart of camp, wrapped in glad-wrap of self-protection from failure. Julian Clary is obviously camp, but so is any Englishman who declares love in every possible way, from the most sarcastic to the most bombastic, without ever doing it simply and directly. Camp revels in the sentimental, notes Sontag, and it seems to me that this sentimentality is an equivalent of the melancholia of disavowal. Sentimentality is not-quite-feeling, just like melancholia: something is idealized, mourned, but never properly felt because it has been lost before it was had. (Judith Butler, if I may interrupt myself learnedly, finds melancholia both in homosexuality and in homophobia: the rage in homophobia is the fact that masculine heterosexuality has had to disavow its own homosexual side.) And the essence of every perfected camp pose is deeply tragic. So if it’s a mannerism, it is a mannerism because what’s at stake is too serious to be addressed directly.

It is a common mistake for the Anglophone to misinterpret any exhibition of wild emotion or manner as camp: but without self-irony of the disavowal, it is not camp even if it looks like it. It is melodrama at times, flamboyance or megalomania, wild farce, etc. There is a morbid darkness at the heart of the Spanish culture that makes its excesses fascist before campy; and a joyfulness at the heart of the Italian culture that makes it illiterate in self-irony. Dali is therefore not camp; neither is Dario Fo.

Can they be campified nonetheless? That one can love a Tiffany lamp or Art Nouveau or Sagrada Familia in a camp way is undisputable; but Elizabeth shows a number of problems that arise when one decides to interpret a play campily, against its grain.

What would “Moi… Lolita” look like in a genuinely English version? We do have a good equivalent already: Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time”. A much less literal rendition of the same, with the 16-year-old nymphet in a schoolgirl uniform, singing something allusive but indirect; textbook camp. But the spelling out of ‘Lolita’, the dancing and the older man giving her money would be too strong elements to keep, precisely because the issue at stake is taken too seriously to be treated so playfully, in such a shamelessly silly way.

Elizabeth is a play in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, which is to say a proto-farce, and the ontological position of every farce is that life is too silly to do anything but laugh with it. There is no seriousness at its bottom: it comes, if it does, as an addition, a U-turn. Dario Fo’s humour, like most Italian humour, is a humour of wild exaggeration, of physical comedy, of whirlwind language, spinning at a vaudeville level at which nothing is sacred. Fo injects satire into it, but this is a cosmic sort of satire: satire of power, masculinity, ego – not of this or that person.

Kantor’s Elizabeth moderates this cosmic silliness into something apparently only marginally different, but what it actually does is weigh the text down, inadmissibly and unforgivably, with the disavowed seriousness of camp. Instead of a joyful romp, it becomes a heavy-handedly melancholy, semiotically weighty thing. The problem is not that there is an interpretation per se: the problem is that it fails as a piece of theatre.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing to say about Michael Kantor is that he seems to be capable of only a very narrow expressive range. Save for the extraordinary Happy Days in 2009, all of his work sticks to the same stew of camp singing, heavily applied Satire, sprinkled with poignancy until we all feel five years old. Too many of his works have looked like an educational poster: this is your FUN, this is your SOCIAL RELEVANCE, and this is your MORAL. Unfortunately for Kantor, the dramatic mechanics of Elizabeth cannot withstand such treatment.

I have rarely seen an English-language production of plays of this kind that understands and honours their lack of seriousness (the most recent was probably The Bourgeois Gentleman, a VCA student work ’09 and a delicious, hyper-silly rendition of Moliere). They tend to turn out pompous, spacious and verbose: the frivolity becomes camp, but they are too long to sustain the effortful artifice of camp without growing tired, boring. Similarly, Elizabeth suffers from too much space between the notes, literally: the silences, the bare stage, the criminal lack of movement (coming back from Europe, it was comparatively mesmerizing how little the actors moved). Lofty room is given to paraphernalia: the dialogue, the words, the plot. As humour withers from Elizabeth, it becomes embarrassingly obvious that a farce has little plot, no characters, no message and neglectable depth. It’s a tragic failure if its chain of events don’t elicit laughter, for it is a form that doesn’t attempt much more (just like “Moi… Lolita” is a pop number, not a call to sexual revolution).

Julie Forsyth realizes a wonderful Elizabeth: old, bogan, energetic and paranoid, she is a beautifully original creation. However, in too many moments she is literally the only thing moving on stage, while some insignificant bit of dialogue is being delivered. It’s telling that the most successful moments in the play (and there are a few, evenly scattered throughout the production), are those in which the stage is animated: the operatic exit of Donna Grozetta, the revolving set. Had there been more simple silliness, the denouement might have actually punched with poignance. Instead, Kantor squanders his seriousness: no moment for a note in minor key is wasted, and almost the entire second act sentimentally elegiac – before the queen has even died! By the time Fo is about to make his one serious point, our ability to empathize with a farce has been so severely wrung that we could comfortably sit through a treatise on Hiroshima, complete with a crying choir of disfigured toddlers, and make mental supermarket lists.

Elizabeth is too long and too inconsequential a text to be camped up like that. By ignoring its farce, Malthouse gets a show full of theatre, but without drama, shiny artifice disguising no serious issue. In my more awake moments, I imagined a provincial Italian theatre running away with the script, making scatological jokes and filling the stage to the brim with business. I even imagined how wonderful the play might have looked in Butterly Club, in a cabaret version. If Elizabeth makes the text look bad, I am still convinced there is a worthwhile play at its bottom. It just requires a production less worried about its meaning.

Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman [Quasi per caso una donna: Elisabetta], by Dario Fo. Translated and freely adapted by Luke Devenish and Louise Fox. Director Michael Kantor. Set and costume designer Anna Cordingley. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Composer Mark Jones. Sound designer Russell Goldsmith. Dramaturge Maryanne Lynch. Apr 3 – 24.

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RW: En Trance

Yumi Umiumare.

It is very rare that I go out of my way to write a reflection on a theatre piece I didn’t enjoy. Particularly considering that this was one evening I had spent in the theatre purely for pleasure, not for work in any way, that I was a paying customer in civilian clothes, and that what I am going to do can fairly be called a deliberate act of meanness. The only answer I can offer is that it was dance, that dance cannot speak for itself, that if we do not speak out for good dance against bad dance than there will be no one, no one at all. Bad theatre can cannibalise itself, you can let it sit in the corner until it collapses into a pile of hollow words and badly crafted phrases, I am happy to let it compost into the fodder for better theatre. No problems there. But bad dance still looks fairly mimetic, still kicking and contagious, an untamed disease.

So I went to see Yumi Umiumare’s En Trance, excited because I had never seen Umiumare’s solo work, because I still possess a half-baked interest in Japan, because I love butoh, because I love cabaret, because it’s been a year of skinny cows in dance in Melbourne. The excitement lasted – En Trance is not bad enough to be immediately outraging – but it was dishearteningly quick that I began to unpick its flaws, composing sentence after sentence of annoyed self-righteousness while still in the audience.

Umiumare, to give credit where credit’s due, is a fantastic performer, not merely a crafty dancing body but a soloist with that unmistakable stage presence of a cabaret performer, able to pull you in and keep you there, genuinely interested in what she may say or do next. Umiumare employs her skill frequently, and some of the most mesmerising moments of En Trance are also the simplest: Umiumare painting her body white, singing a J-pop song to karaoke, or explaining different Japanese onomatopoeias for crying. Good stage presence, it occurs to me, shares something ineffable with the skills of a good creche child-minder: the ability to keep an eye on a large number of other human beings while doing your own work. (Do observe kindergarten employees some time, you will see.) However, the dramaturgy and the choreography, two fundamental building blocks of dance, are so horrifyingly underdeveloped, that it did not even feel like a draft most of the time. It felt like a brainstorming session, like flicking through someone’s scrapbook, like the disconnected and half-baked notes in travel notebooks in which one may have written ‘boy – jeans’ back when it meant something amazingly profound, but unfortunately now it doesn’t anymore; now one reads ‘boy’, then ‘jeans’, and tries to find a bit of meaning, anything really, to restore one’s faith in one’s own brain.

In a succession of steps downwards, like descending down a ladder, Umiumare sheds layers of civilisation and descends into death, madness and animal-ness; that is, becomes less human. So far, so good. After her cat runs away, she undergoes through a series of transmutations, so to speak, her body subjected first to the de-humanising city (please hear the irony in my voice here), then the violence of pain, and so forth. The first problem is that each scene is monotonously overlong: each had an interesting premise and could have been cut by half. Nothing was gained by duration, except that each dance had a moment of the audience waking out of the spectatorial trance, and drifting away. The second problem, much graver, is that Umiumare makes ample use of her local folklore: from the Japanese cityscapes, through the samurai physical vocabulary, to J-pop, to different oni (most signpostedly shiroi hebi); all her costumes have vague shapes of kimono, there is tea-drinking, there is a white parasol, and visually the entire thing looks like the transcultural theatre of the 1980s, a naïve and ridiculous, if not offensive and essentialist, fusion of gestures and motifs. There were parts, notably the cityscape dance, when I entertained the notion of En Trance being poor man’s dumb type, but even that seemed excessively generous, and I eventually settled for something approximating Mats Ek’s orientalist Sacre du Printemps in intent, and similarly failing in execution. Why? To re-interpret Stravinsky’s dance of madness, the horrific and erotic sacrifice of a young virgin, by pushing it through the sieve of bushido and love suicides is somehow so logical that it loses all sense. The beauty of Sacre, if you want, is demonic and repulsive and close; the moment this is outsourced to the Far East, it has to become elegant not to be insulting (because Ek is Swedish, and probably knew fuck-all about bushido), but then what was supposed to be just a system of signage overweighs and engulfs the entire work, turning it into a hollow, nice-looking facade. Whereas Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s ballet was a punch in the gut, Ek’s was just a bit… camp?

I wonder if Umiumare is aware of the two hundred and sixteen problems associated with performing a descent away from being human through her Japanese-ness in Melbourne, the distance her audience already has towards this culturally specific material, the way she herself reinforces the exoticity by merely explaining it to us (the didactic moments were interesting, but one felt instructed thus made into a better person, a little like at worst political theatre), the creepy spectacle of a re-orientalised body willingly turning into an animal; as if it was 1986, and all people of colour who spoke LOTE could embrace their inner savage and find answers to all their riddles. To speak of other cultures is only a problem, I would argue, if we parcel the world into ‘cultures’, if we choose to see the globe as a patchwork, rather than a teeming mass of people all slightly different from another, our codes only surface ripples on a deep sea of shared humanity. When Kundera talks about Stravinsky, Kafka, Carlos Fuentes and Majakovski, you are convinced that these people are important to you, to your life, that their lives, thoughts and actions say something important and meaningful about your life, my life, everyone’s life. That life is lived in particulars, not in generalities, does not contradict this point: ‘culture’ is a generalization in itself, while nothing is more universal than a detail. (This is why types of crying in Japanese onomatopoeia were a fantastic motif that, instead of looking at crying, dissolved into a sterile catalogue of exotic difference.) After all, there is a motif in Slavic fairy tales akin to that of the white snake: a man marries a woman, but she is actually a snake, and the evil thoughts in her mind leave a mark on her body in the form of a snake tongue. Like all good stories, so is this one universal. The truth is not to be discovered in Japan alone, not on its surface at least. Like Ek’s Sacre, so is this snake in drag a bit camp; a bit ‘look at my national costume’; and a bit dated as well.

Stranded between cultures, I do wonder what an artist can do. Like Kundera, he can retreat into greater and greater abstraction, comparative abstraction in his specific case. Like Nabokov, he can employ all his gifts to beat the natives at their game. Like Shaun Tan, perhaps, he can make his own world, a private place that could be anywhere at all; or he can simply be so brilliant at his work that his locus does not matter the slightest. But can he also hold onto his old culture and remain a specialist translator? Is there not something cloying, something dishonest, something fermenting and oxidising about this movement into self-replenishing, privately-grown culture? Kusturica’s ever more outrageous claims on what his people are comes to mind. To make a catalogue of your private world, like some sort of overgrown shrine to ancestors, and try to explain it all to your audience, yet always leaving them out because communication is a fine median between codes, not some fluency in a set language, strikes me almost as wilful retreat into the island of cultural self. Like the proverbial expat ordering Vegemite online.

En Trance. By Yumi Umiumare. Dramaturg and collaborator Moira Finacune, media art by Bambang Nurcahyadi, installtion artist Naomi Ota, costumes design by David Anderson, lighting design by Kerry Ireland. With Yumi Umiumare. Malthouse Theatre, until September 13.

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RW: Happy Days

People who don’t go to the theatre often wonder why theatre enthusiasts are, well, such enthusiasts. The answer lies in the rarely achieved bliss of the curtain call: the actors on stage, the audience in commotion, the physical and emotional synchronicity of the long applause. It is one in a hundred, but that’s the magic of theatre. And it happened on the opening night of Happy Days (all those historical accounts of 40-minute curtain calls may start to make sense now; it is not the time, not a sporting achievement; it’s the intensity, and the mystical quality of the reaction). Complete strangers stood up without any prior agreement, looked at each other, and asked: wasn’t that incredible? The physical dissynchronicity of the standing ovation. The way one felt like crying, except that it wasn’t possible (not among the people, not in the communal, generous moment of shared appreciation); the way one sat down feeling stirred, incoherent. Meeting someone who shares your favourite book has some of the same effect: you are united through an experience that is deeply personal. People never cry together reminiscing over favourite novels; they smile, nod, separated by silence, but united in the source of the silence.

Julie Forsyth in Happy Days.

In other words, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which has just opened at the Malthouse, is an extraordinary theatrical experience.

The 20th-century housewife is a figure of astonishing resonance whose full significance we could easily explore for the next hundred years before we exhaust the topic completely. The combination of post-war neo-traditionalism of ideals, realised across the media, in fashion as much as in suburban sprawl, combined with that strange, but common belief that the absence of hard, concrete oppression equals freedom, resulted in the most terrifyingly well-realised image of obtuse, happy misery. Up to that point, the obvious misogyny of most societies meant that women’s life was construed and self-explained as one long toil: there is nothing particularly chirpy about the advice given to daughters in Biedermeier, in the Jesuit unforgiveness of the etiquette manuals or the phrenological quackery of guides to Girls Not To Wed. Afterwards, structuralism and Camus made us see compulsion in what had up to then seemed most blatant absence of restrictions. In that pocket, not more than twenty years, between the end of the Second World War and the sexual revolution, rises the iconic housewife, stirred and blow-dried into marzipan perfection, smiling her tragedy away.

It was not necessarily the worst destiny for a woman there had ever been. It was, however, the most poetically atrocious. From the Dickensian chimney-sweepers to the Islamic janjicari, I cannot think of any systematically screwed demographic group that bore such wide smiles. Tele-wonder Man Men, a retrospective of the 1960s, can still dig deep into this well of sugary sadness, sadness kept willfully at bay. On the local theatre front, My Darling Patricia valiantly tried in Politely Savage in 2006. But Happy Days teases out something of the cosmic grimness of the image better than any other work of art I’ve encountered so far; realises, perhaps, for the first time the universal resonance of the smiling house-keeping slave. (Outside, that is, Betty Friedan.) That it looks so fresh, after all this time, suggests we have only started poking our noses into the problematics.

The plot, if one can call it so, is wrapped in a grotesque both comic and drab, that reveals Beckett’s debt to Kafka. Winnie, a woman of about fifty, is buried up to her waist in scorched earth. Unable to get out, but with a bag of beauty gadgets to keep her occupied, she carefully parcels her time between two demonic bells, one for waking and one for sleep. Willie, her man of about sixty, hides in a hole just outside her field of vision. Willie grumbles, reads the newspaper, and occasionally retorts – all of which delights Winnie immensely. She is, you see, living in the best of all worlds. In the second act, Winnie now buried up to her chin, and still smiling, still talking, but now unable to carefully keep herself busy with nail filing, hair combing, praying, and looking wistfully at the gun in the bottom of her bag. Finally approached by Willie, dressed in his Sunday best, Winnie nearly bawls with happiness – she can finally see him.

There is a macabre clockwork to Winnie’s routine of body management, of hair curling and hat donning and parasol waving, the minute tick-tock of narcissistic busywork – narcissistic not because inherent to Winnie’s personality, but because it is all so centred on physical upkeep. It recalls the terrible routine of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, who over 210 minutes walks from one room to another, scrubs bathtubs, shops for groceries, mends buttons, lifts lids, stirs soups, flours schnitzels: the Sisyphean absurdity of her days is so heart-wrenchingly, grittily hypnotic that, when she starts making mistakes, the viewer is immediately aware that the magnitude of the disturbance in her life must be enormous. Similarly, the nail file and the parasol are quite literally Winnie’s crutches against sinking, her only weapons against the stillness which would equal absurdity. I have repeatedly encountered the notion that Happy Days is not only a cheerful play, but one of Beckett’s most cheerful. This is a grave confusion of terms. There is not a trace of either optimism or genuine happiness in Winnie’s leaden, ebony-white refusal to despair. In fact, the stern genius of the play comes from recreating closely that terrible despair that each one of us must have felt, at times, looking at women in our lives who were, in every aspect, insanely invested in their miserable lives, but whose astronomic tragedy was tempered by the fact their predicament was also fairly average. If retelling Happy Days crushes me, it is because it brings to mind a grandmother who spent a decade grumbling at a mute grandfather; a mother who smiled one such leaden smile for my entire childhood; girlfriends with hair graying in teenagehood who chirped: I have nothing to complain about. Not for nothing did Beckett qualify his writing choices in Happy Days by saying: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”

In The Corrections, his masterpiece on the modern family, Jonathan Franzen’s mater familias, Enid, is one such stupendously optimistic character. What appears clear, though, as the novel progresses, is that, stuck with an abusive, demented husband who refuses to either die or accept treatment, Enid’s predicament is so dire that her relentless optimism is the equivalent of pulling herself out of the water with her own hand, Munchausen-like. A purposeful tunnel vision as the only hope for survival. Franzen, however, gave Enid a way out. In the disturbingly upbeat final paragraphs, Albert has succumbed to dementia and uses the occasional presence of mind only to attempt suicide in numerous laughable ways; Enid, on the other hand, uses his final immobility, this long-awaited ready availability of her husband’s body that has evaded her all her life, to tell him, again and again, how much he wronged her, how right she was, how much better he should have treated her, and grows stronger and more optimistic. Once he’s dead, Enid “felt that nothing could kill her hope now. She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.”

If Happy Days avoids any such baroque resolution, it is a function of its time. I was reminded, again and again, of Tristan Tzara’s post-World War One program: No pity. After the carnage, we are left with the hope of the purified humanity. Yet Tzara’s dada, reacting to the Great War, was in many ways stern and moralistic: it had a program, exclamation marks, conclusions. Winnie and Willie represent no purified humanity. Beckett is post-hope. After the Second World War has proven that tragedy-come-around is a very bleak farce, neither moralism nor optimism is appropriate. There were no manifestos after Auschwitz. Happy Days is resignation without resolution, strength in absurdity, absurd strength. Sisyphean in the sense Camus intended.

The Malthouse production, I am tempted to say, is predictably masterful. Trapped inside Anna Cordingley’s abstractly organic set, suggesting the bureaucratic, industrial horror of early expressionism (and winking another wink at Kafka), the characters’ situation is measuredly hopeless, without a trace of slapstick. Julie Forsyth and Peter Carroll are among the finest living Australian actors, and are directed with enormous subtlety by Michael Kantor. Peter Carroll delivers his seven lines impeccably, while Forsyth’s blabbering Winnie is an exquisitely balanced creation, simultaneously genuinely cheerful and genuinely desperate. While Malthouse’s earlier Optimism, a re-working of Voltaire’s Candide, was greatly similar in intent, it wavered uncertainly between hollow comedy and heavy didacticism. Happy Days, instead, is perfect: neither too sour, nor too bitter. Its tragedy is pastel-coloured.

Yet there is nothing predictable about perfection, and it should be appreciated as such. As Chekhov would say: Reader, I’m in raptures, allow me to embrace you!

Happy Days. By Samuel Beckett. Director Michael Kantor. Set and costume designer Anna Cordingley. Lighting designer Paul Jackson. Sound Russell Goldsmith. With Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth. Malthouse theatre, July 3-25. Belvoir Street Theatre, November 4 – December 16.

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RW: A Commercial Farce

Humour is possibly the most culturally specific of all the culturally specific things. You only true way, I would argue, to know whether you fit into a foreign culture is whether you can be funny on purpose. Once you can locate their funny bone, you have found the key to a people.

There are as many kinds of humour as there are cultural traditions in the world, each one slightly different. (Yasmina Reza famously remarked that English people laugh at her plays too much and inappropriately, with a sort of puzzled, Francophone disdain.) There are people who live in constant humour: Jews with their offbeat absurdity; Serbs with their grotesque, macabre farce; the good-spirited, optimistic humour of the Czech; the dry wit of the English. Russians (fail to understand that even the bleakest Dostoyesky is weaved out of laughter and you fail to understand them all). Then there are strange cases, like the Italians. While extremely quick-witted, fluidly comic in their everyday conversations, they somehow deaden and stultify their humour whenever they attempt comedy. Every minute of my life in Italy was spent recovering from abdominal spasms, yet their comedies were the most painfully obvious, dull failures. The Portuguese and the New Zealanders, whose sense of humour thrives on an understaded deadpan that one can easily fail to notice, so quickly it slips by. And then there are those who seem to constantly struggle. My own Croats are among the most tragically unfunny people alive. And then there are Australians.

Australian humour seems to thrive on strange, unexpected; it is a found-object sort of humour best exemplified by the likes of John Safran. When it doesn’t wallow in self-affirming pity, it can wrap itself around the bizarre and the tragic with unique talent (like at the Green Room Awards 2008, where the special guest whose name I cannot find, a talented young actor recovering from a stroke, broke through the thunderous applause – mateship performance – to tell the audience we will hear all about his life in his next show: Stroke: The Musical). It excels in extreme, over-the-top satire (such as The Chaser), in turning the mundane into poignantly tragicomic. It is also, singularly, thiumphantly, unsuited to farce.

Thus we come to Peter Houghton’s A Commercial Farce. Houghton’s The Pitch deservedly won two Green Room Awards in 2006, and had a successful return season at the Malthouse’s Tower in 2008. It was that same kind of over-the-top satire: an hour-long pitch for a film crammed with every possible money-making, grant-winning, and critic-seducing trick. Here we can establish the first rule of Australian humour: it needs a target to take over the top.

As I have argued elsewhere, there are rules to farce. A farce is grounded in funniness intrinsic to the character, to the situation. It is decentred, targetless humour, that requires an ability to laugh at oneself, not merely some external other. George Costanza/Larry David is a character that needs to turn to no target: his behaviour is hilarious in its own right. American sit-coms, built on the ability to see the farcical nature of any situation (family life!, corporate America!, sex!, etc) are another example. So are, more strangely, Serbian war films, which vigorously demonstrate the farce that some supposedly just war had degenerated into, without a trace of self-pity: in Rane/Wounds, a typical weekend guerrilla returns from the war with a truckful of pillaged household appliances, while his mistress has a (bewilderingly hilarious) fit because she didn’t get the microwave she had ordered. After a successful farce, one comes out of the theatre feeling that the world is out of whack, and damned we all if we care.

A Commercial Farce is a very smart work of theatre, a farce about a farce. At 11pm on the day before the opening night, a director to old to be aspiring is trying to teach his audience-magnet, his ticket-selling TV-soap trophy actor the basics of theatre, if he is to recoup the money he has invested in the show. The banana skin is there, the rake is strategically placed, the actor wants to understand the themes and his character, the director is sleeping with his main actress, and the wife is threatening to leave him. Houghton deconstructs the and reconstructs the rules of the game before our eyes, and yet none of the two work. The farce-within-the-farce fails because such are the rules. The farce fails because, although smart, it simply isn’t funny enough.

Luke Ryan’s obnoxious TV star Jules is a wonderfully executed absurdity, arriving on stage in a designer beanie, aspiring to Shakespeare without knowing the first thing about him, leaving as intact in his dim bubble as he entered. However, he constantly outlaughs Peter Houghton’s hapless director. The fault is not in the performances (both wonderfully executed, not least the masterful, slow-burning drunkenness they descend into as the evening progresses), but in the writing. The director is neither Costanza nor David – there is nothing unarguably hilarious about him. In another setting, he may well be the funniest man in the room, but on this stage he is too busy trying to burst Ryan’s bubble to rise in his own. He is a common man, a delusioned, promiscuous alcoholic with a middle-age crisis. He, predictably, bursts into fits of anger, but there is nothing particularly funny about strings of expletives (although this is the common haha-moment in Australian comedy, presumably because Australians never burst into fits of anger). As Houghton’s character grows progressively disillusioned about his project, so the farce turns dangerously towards targeting the soapie Jules. Coupled with some sloppily obvious writing (“You are the acting equivalent of a Big Mac!”), the entire thing degenerates into an over-the-top satire. (Here we may point the second rule of Australian humour: on the stage, there needs to be a character laughing with the audience.) Yet the target is farcical, too easy. Too many bubbles burst before the show’s end.

The result is still good, but doesn’t approach the excellence we’ve come to expect from Houghton.

A Commercial Farce. Written by Peter Houghton. Directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingley, sound design by Ben Grant, lighting by Matt Scott. With Peter Houghton and Luke Ryann. Malthouse Theatre, June 5-27.

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RW: Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd

To call Lally Katz a surrealist would be correct, but imprecise. She is certainly the only widely-produced playwright of her generation to be squarely settled in a very personal world of half-digested fairy tales, misunderstood urban myths, and personal anxieties. This is not that dissimilar from Black Lung productions; however, while Henning’s writing features pastiche characters bereft of a play, a sort of channel browsing embodied and searching for the lost narrative thread, Katz stretches her pop incoherence over sociohistorical confusions (from Ern O’Malley to suburban rivalries in Melbourne, to the history of local vaudeville), overlays it all with an anxious suburban sexuality, and wrings hard.

Katz’s characters are always vaguely aware of their fictitiousness and, like suburban teenagers, less fight it than try to manipulate their own image, make willful exits, evolve, delude: and yet, they are always trapped in the strict girdle of a Lally Katz play, a self-aware machine of its own, that gallops with the unrelenting mercilessness of the grown-up world. Levels of discourse intermingle, predictable plotlines start and finish against all odds, while the unpredictable ones drift off, and the characters, like the repeatedly erased Daffy Duck in that seminal cartoon, struggle to assert themselves. Abalone and Gerture, the two suburban orphans in The Eisteddfod, get trapped in an entire soap-opera of intrigue and ambition, despite cracking under the conflicting pressure of their own alter-egos. In Black Swan of Trespass, Ern O’Malley cannot find consolation in his brief and tortured life, despite being just a literary hoax, while Ethel O’Malley is a psychological cripple, a tragic puddle of incomplete characterization (like some David Williamson character magically granted self-awareness). In Smashed, two teenage girls are on a time trip through their own fantasy, confusing themselves and each other. It is this wild democracy of reference points that makes Katz’s productions, usually directed by Chris Kohn, a respected translator of her ideas, something of a treat for Australian stages.

Julia Zemiro and Christen O’Leary. Photo by Jeff Busby.

None of this magic, mind you, could be deducted from their last collaboration, now playing at the Malthouse. There is a 15-minute chunk towards the end of the second act, when Katz’s usual voice cuts through the conflicting ambitions of the play so far, and suddenly all the botched possibilities are made visible. Ethylyn Rarity (not the first one to embody the role), while wrestling Charlie Mudd, the owner of the unsuccessful vaudeville house she is trying to leave (I have retold you the previous act and a half just there), finds an exact copy of her wig and dress under the stage. “How long have I been here?”, she cries, and gives a repeat of one of the first phrases we hear her utter in the show: “I don’t know my lines…” After that, she somehow coerces Mudd into killing all his characters, and it’s all meta- and confusing and utterly beautiful. And somehow, you see how high the performance could have flown.

Instead, the 125 minutes beforehand are a pretty studious failure; and less so because of any precise decision, than the cumulative effect of so many moves in many directions. A large part of Vaudeville is a low-key, low-intensity, terminally slow and dramatically flat vaudeville performance. Racist and sexist jokes are shot at us, repeatedly, with a painfully consistent lack of audience enthusiasm. Had this gone on for 140 minutes straight, it wouldn’t have been the average Katz/Kohn production, but would have been interesting nonetheless: it would be an unflinching look into the eyes of the past, untainted with the cushy nostalgia that so ruined a similarly-minded A Large Attendance in the Antechamber in 2007 Tower. As Stuff White People Like has succintly pointed out, there is a diffuse and mute sense of guilt over so many things in certain Anglo-Seaxon societies that apologies become a sort of thin veneer on the everyday life. The dissection of what exactly we get so nostalgic about that drearily drags across those planks is a marvelous goal: Mark Jones in blackface, Christen O’Leary’s horny ventriloquist puppet, Jews who lend at zero interest?

Unfortunately, Vaudeville then cascades into a stage version of Dr Quinn the Medicine Woman; a psychologically slim docu-drama on the backstage of history that cannot escape its own absurdist impulses. In purging nostalgia, it seems to veer towards revealing unpleasant historical truth, but trips over its own hysterical fantasies instead. A ventriloquist has slept with her father, the magician with two midgets, and the until-then squirmy humour turns genuinely humour-like – it still isn’t funny, but it stretches its own playing field, simulating an honest attempt at inducing laughter. Perhaps Katz has been outdone by the self-parody of cinema. While the unmasking of characters as paper dolls trapped within the play is nominally her territory, I can think of a bucketful of Sunday afternoon films in which circus freaks reveal a saccharine human face in digestible, family-friendly doses (and it merely starts with The Wizard of Oz).

Ultimately, the tripartite coalition of tendencies doesn’t quite lead us anywhere: it is not an absurd inside-out of a play that Katz likes to write; not a crude dissection of nostalgia that the program notes roundaboutedly hint at; and the part that most easily absorbs these two failed trajectories is the third slant towards rather unremarkable nostalgic setpiece. The result is wildly uneven. Like John Bolton’s recent The Masque of the Red Death, it is neither representation nor pure presence, neither vaudeville nor a well-made play, and certainly not the Katz/Kohn theatrical lunatic asylum. Its majestic, spectacularly boring offensiveness neither lasts long enough nor steps into territory slippery enough to seriously challenge the audience (the way This Is Set in the Future, with its unrelenting vulgarity, did at La Mama last December). It looks, more than anything, like an MTC-esque crowd-pleaser, and as such it clearly fails, due to the above-mentioned surrealist and offensive tendencies.

These days, I rarely book myself into performances that completely disappoint me. After Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, I had to apologise for dragging my +1 along, which is very rare indeed. The last time this happened was at the equally praised, and equally ill-conceived The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, another promise of a quirky tale that couldn’t quite decide how close to middlebrow to trot. Perhaps Katz and Kohn work better off on small, semiotically already oblique stage. Perhaps it could have all been saved by more spirited acting. Not mine to tell. I am just hoping that next time will be better.

Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd. Written by Lally Katz, concept and direction by Chris Kohn. Set and costumes by Jonathan Oxlade, music composed by Mark Jones, sound design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. With Mark Jones, Alex Menglet, Christen O’Leary, Jim Ruseell, Matt Wilson and Julia Zemiro. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until March 28.

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Dance Massive

While I’m catching up on sleep whenever I can find a spare hour – which makes my days wildly unpredictable for everyone else – you can find my reviews of Dance Massive performances accumulating, with painful regularity, on the RealTime website, some other website, as well as distributed around the Dancehouse, Arts House, and Malthouse (how’s that for a trio of hice?) in paper form.

In an unusual doubling-up, Alison muses on the very same shows.

Hopefully you’re all enjoying the dance invasion. I’m very happy to note that the audience numbers look more than great, with a large percentage of delighted small children filling the seats. At The Fondue Set last night, they were responding to post-modernism with shrieking exhilaration. How very wonderful. Here are the future dance connoisseurs in the making.

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This week / exhaustion

The quiet of the last few weeks, on GS, was just the backstage of the roaring thunder of Ms Gorilla managing no less than 6 jobs and one full-time university degree, adding up to something approximating 100 hours a week. If you think that this is bordering on literary figure and/or surrealism, well: there’s your answer to my absence from writing lite thoughts about current affairs and my feet.

In the last few weeks I have done such an extraordinary amount of work that it’s a wonder I haven’t dropped dead. (As our beautiful days incorporate morning thunderstorms and painfully hot nights, I am reminded that I have truly adapted to Melbourne. When I first moved here, I spent the entire 2006 limping from flu to flu, my body in utter confusion about the 5-minute turnaround of seasons.) I have co-authored a paper, produced a short film, and held a research project together around these activities. I have been designing three websites, finished one, and prepared a book for print. I have interviewed, written, read, edited, commissioned, liaised, responded. Meanwhile, just to spice things up, I’ve had to somehow resolve a housemate crisis, lease crisis, Centrelink crisis, general home-economics crisis (huge), enrolment crisis, multiple-technology-breaking down crisis, and a personal crisis, each one bigger than the other. I have learned to read Social Security Law, which is more than the average person does in order to get social security. I also have a couch guest at the moment, but Fanny is a lovely, calming presence in this apartment that sometimes resembles an erratically steered raft in the Bermuda triangle.

However, in this chaos of duties, responsibilities and transferable skills, I’ve discovered the blessing that people with stable moods are. How vastly overrated psychological instability is!, how inappropriately deemed a sign of creative genius! These weeks have been made bearable, if not somehow enjoyable, by the continuous presence of many wonderful people in my life (you know who you are), people whose general emotional maturity I could count on. Good lesson. Important.

Onto the news:

by now everyone knows that Dance Massive has started, a two-week dance fest that will certainly keep those of us who tire of language happy. There will be in-depth coverage, here on GS, on Spark Online, and elsewhere. I would enthusiastically recommend Inert, were it not sold out. Other things of interest include Morphia Series, by Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham (see my review of Sunstruck) Chunky Move’s high-tech Mortal Engine, and Sydney’s Fondue Set with No Success Like Failure, on which David Williams wrote beautifully here. Splintergroup, an offshoot of Ultimavezesque Dancenorth, are down from Queensland, with lawn and the charmingly titled roadkill. The website claims the latter was developed with Sasha Waltz and Guests, which alone is a recommendation enough.

At Gasworks, Sandra Parker’s extraordinary Out of Light is going until 7 March: you have three nights left to catch it. At La Mama there are two nightfuls of Wretch left, with the inimitable Angus Cerini and Susie Dee. If you’re into another kind of unrealism, National Theatre in St Kilda is showing Don Giovanni by Victorian Opera, directed by the man-legend Jean-Pierre Mignon, and it’s absolutely fabulous. Samuel Dundas, whose debut as a principal singer this role I believe is, is an extraordinary Don G, cocky and damned equally, making it all infinitely more credible than MTC’s scandalous Don Juan in Soho (although the latter added drugs, urban squalor and yuppidom in search of verisimilitude).

Arts House, my favourite venue in town, will soon have My Darling Patricia down from Sydney, with Night Garden, and Hoi Polloi far-down from the UK with Floating. Both look delicious, but I am biased towards hybrid performance. More information on the Arts House website.

On the more text-heavy side, Malthouse is soon opening Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, a highly anticipated return of Lally Katz & Chris Kohn to the city. Combining Julia Zemiro with the historical research into vaudeville, this should prove very popular with the general audience. I am hoping to see it some time later, as my rarefied interest in non-dancing dance and silent performance, and body and memory, and so on, keeps me occupied. But oh you should all go.

Yet the most exciting news, to the urbanist me, has been the launch of Creative Spaces (a week ago, but, hey, 6 jobs). More than a very pretty website, it has been conceived by the City of Melbourne as a sort of match-making service, trying to connect every vacant space in metropolitan Melbourne with an artist looking for a studio, performance space, or a storage corner. You can advertise a space, or a need for space.

While this is a hugely practical, useful set-up, it also marks a commitment by the city government to take care of its creative communities. The project was fancily launched in Boyd School Studios, former JH Boyd Girls High School at 207-221 City Road Southbank. Local government has bought the object from the State gov, and refurbished it into studio spaces. This is likely to be a temporary settlement, while the future of the site is negotiated into either another housing condominium, or, as the local residents are pushing, a community centre (don’t get me started). Even such, it’s a very positive, if small, step towards making life on a shoestring easier in this city.

This is all from me for a while. It has been suggested to me to start a calendar of events on this website, keep tracks of openings and such. To add that to my weekly schedule, though, I would seriously need to employ an intern, or a subcontractor.

But we will finish, as usual, with a pop song you are unlikely to have ever encountered: Alina Orlova, from Lithuania.

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