Tag Archives: Malthouse

RW: I Love You Bro

This is going to be a but-review, a classical type of guilty criticism. A but-review will always start by praising elements: the acting, the set, the lighting (the more peripheral the better). It will try to wash away the guilty dislike, which the critic fears may be due to personal reasons (taste, fatigue, mood), by giving just and due credit to the skill, the effort, and the commitment displayed by the production team, the artists, the performers. It will say, conscientiously, Ash Flanders channels presence through accents, emotions, gesture and colour, never letting this one-man-show loosen its grip on us. It will duly note that the success of a monodrama rests on the sole performer the way no other drama does. It will point the looming risk of boredom (visual, aural, tonal, spatial), the heroism embedded in the format. It will say, good on the lighting!, or some such silly thing.

If the but-reviewer is feeling generously just, she will add, Adam J.A. Cass writes a mean sentence, and won’t make any snide comments about multiple middle initials. The review will continue on the beauty of the language, the rhythm, the observation of dialect, slang and jargon (for what is the chat-room lingo if not a jargon?), note that it takes brio to put a real-life soap opera conducted exclusively in an online chatroom on stage with any success. If feeling journalistically inclined, the but-review will launch into a summary of the events in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, in 2003. Or it may provide a link instead. The story of a boy who tried to incite his own murder is extraordinary enough, and some points may be dispensed to Cass for building a complex web of deceit, through heavy accent, and not once underestimating his audience. All this because the critic, if she has any heart, will be aware of both the skill and the effort it takes to produce theatre of this standard (and it is a high standard) – particularly if independently (which precludes anyone from making anything but a loss, of money, of time).

And then it will happen: the crritic will say: but…, usually followed by an articulation of why the entire enterprise was a bad idea. Her reasons will have to do with the extraneous: with the history of theatre; with the local fashion, or recent artistic developments in the form; or with someone’s political position. Yet it will be an absolute argumentum ad hominem (ad teatrum), since it will declare it invalid by definition, not satisfied with judging whether it achieved what it set out to achieve, which in some circles is still the definition of good criticism.

Finally, the text will end on either a demi-shrug (to each their own), a battle call (let’s end this misery), or an admission of personal defeat in the face of popular taste. I am guilty of them all.

I Love You Bro is a perfectly wonderful thing to spend an evening watching – and I say this without irony – except that it would work beautifully on the radio. In one moment, Flanders says: I close my eyes… and I slowly open them again, and I am itchy with irritation, for the performer has eyes, the eyes are on stage, so is their opening-and-closing, and this redundancy, this inability of the dramatic text to assume the presence of a living, breathing body, makes it self-sufficient as text, as literature. It is a play fully upholstered with words, wall-to-wall language that doesn’t let the stage breathe anything but dialect-slang-jargon.

If to this conscientious crritic this automatically invalidates the project, it is because this crritic sees contemporary theatre in Australia as stuck between two paradigms: that of the still, language-based thing with some people performing it live, in front of us, ranging from a well-made play to statically reproduced Sarah Kane on the one hand; and of the visual dramaturgy, of silence and time and paradox and images, on the other. For this crritic, the first theatrical universe is exemplified by literary adaptations, poetry slams, radio dramas, West End, Melbourne Theatre Company, and is driven as much by actors who like to pronounce beautiful words and critics who graduated in literature as it is by an audience who likes to avoid embarrassment, who likes a screen between its seat and the performing body it has come to observe. The spectre of television and mainstream cinema hangs over this type of theatre like an ominous cloud, both because the audience knows it better and expects to see it staged, and because of the seep between the jobs that the performers, writers and directors may be trying to catch (television, after all, pays).

While text is seen as the history, the past, of the theatre (because it is the document that survives the best), it is but one part of this history, and it is the stream that has historically realised itself, in this crritic’s opinion, with complete success in the realm of television, of radio, and to lesser extent in the cinema. It is, in other words, something that the theatre, if there is to be such a thing as theatre, needs to outgrow.

But theatre, even in this country, is finding its way out of this redundancy, of explaining its own signs. In the other stream, while language survives as a semiotic layer, it tends to assume equal standing with the sound, images, etc, as an expressive system. We have seen some thrilling performances as a result: the Katz&Kohn productions, for example, a beautiful version of Mishima’s The Damask Drum by Liminal in 2006, the Black Lung works, but otherwise mostly circus, dance and what we vaguely call live art or performance. This is what makes them so riveting, so much more exciting at the moment: circus, dance and performance are so clearly not television, and not radio, that to a theatre idealist they offer a comforting answer to the nagging question of whether this form has a place left in the world. In this approach, theatre is not just text standing on stage, but a moment of encounter, with its own spatio-temporal reality, its own ethics and economics. If we want there to be theatre in a hundred years, existing as anything other than a relic of the past, this is what it will be made of.

In the philosophical battle over the importance of the text for the mise-en-scene, theatre theorists from the radicals such as Thies-Lehmann to the philocentrics like Anne Ubersfeld broadly agree that the dramatic text is fundamentally incomplete: the amount of justification given to the directorial tinkering may vary, but the text in itself is always only a part of the whole. Susan Bassnett articulates:

What we have, therefore, is a troubled and troubling notion of the play, for far from being complete in itself, like a novel or a poem, it is arguably only part of the total equation that is the play in performance. The reader of the play may experience a sense of something lacking, a lacuna that can only be filled when the play is made physical. The play as literature is distinct from the play in performance…

Writing such as Cass’s, beautifully realised texts, glean playwright awards from their strength as texts, complete and shiny and lacking the lacunae of something that does not satisfy a reader, something that needs to be chopped up into people, stage directions, staged events. What happens, as it happens with I Love You, Bro, is that the theatre itself is cleansed from these lovely words when this lack is exorcised. The moment something could exist on the radio, and could exist well on the radio, the text has become literature. And the moment that happens, nobody can argue that we could not have just as well stayed at home. And then, who will we blame in a hundred years…?

I Love You, Bro, by Adam J.A. Cass. Director Yvonne Virsik. Designer Jason Lehane. Composer Nick Wollan. Production Manager Sarah Grubb. Lighing and sound operations Stewart Birkinshaw Campbell or Angela Cole. Performed by Ash Flanders. Production by Malthouse Theatre and Three to a Room. Feb 10 – 28.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anatomy Titus, The Work of Wonder: This Review is About the Audience.

1. Almost by accident, I came across the following story:
In [the Serbo-Croatian war in the early 1990s], for the first time in history, the tactic of rape became a strategy. Soldiers took women from their homes, from UN or Red Cross or refugee convoys, and put them in the so called “rape camps.” Young girls, daughters taken from mothers, mothers taken with their daughters. They were systematically raped until they got pregnant; then they were released from the camps, but in a late stage of pregnancy when it is too late for legal abortion. These women came to Zagreb, the Croatian capital and second refugee stop. Newspapers were filled with their stories: what to do with the unborn conceived in such terrible circumstances. The word “children” was avoided. –Sanja Nikčević. Rape as War Strategy: A Drama from Croatia

I am not sure what a good artistic response to a story of this kind would consist of, but I am not convinced it would of a woman raped in a locker, vomiting on the floor, as in The Women of Troy, a field trip into abjection. Rape camps are a different story to the holocaust, and neither is the digital photography of Abu Ghraib an instance of banal evil: both, instead, are illustrations of the primordial excess, the glee of violence. Barbaric, sweet and sticky and ecstatic, just like the pre-historic wars were, but not mechanical, not absent-minded, not jogging suits, not plastic bags. In confusing the two, I am increasingly convinced the Kosky/Wright production misunderstood its role, and took part in the creation of gore, in titillation. It was competing with the images, trying to find a new angle, perhaps (although I doubt) re-sensitize us: in that respect, it was all about the internal audience equilibrium of emotion and revulsion. If there was any genuine banality there, it was the guilty banality of spectatorship, banality the audience may have been attempting to exorcise through submission to ever more disturbing images. And the point at which these images we are creating to ourselves become more excessive, more disturbing than anything likely to occur in real life, we are making a form of very simple, primary-coloured pornography: images for emotional masturbation.

To try to reduce the pain of others to the interchangeable familiar images, Baudrillard’s circular simulacra, is to deny them their particularity, to reduce them to symbols pointing at our own, limited experience that they sit squarely outside of. Far from being an exercise in sympathy, observing extreme suffering, arising from extreme consequences, is a deeply alienating experience. There is no more distant other than the person undergoing a pain we cannot even imagine, in circumstances profoundly distant from ours. By drawing on our bank of images, The Women of Troy gets implicated in another, more complex story.

2. The political in the theatre, it has been noted, does not consist of topics, but of modes of perception, of sign usage – theatre as a refuge from and an opposition to the information-conveying of the mass media that shapes our common reality. “It is a fundamental fact of today’s Western societies that all human experiences (life, eroticism, happiness, recognition) are tied to the consumption and possession of commodities (and not to a discourse)”, writes Hans-Thies Lehmann in Postdramatic Theatre. “This corresponds exactly to the civilization of images that can only ever refer to the next image and call up other images. The totality of the spectacle is the ‘theatricalization’ of all areas of social life.” The citizen becomes defined by spectatorship.

If fiction and reality merge, it is not because, as is often deplored, we mistake news for invented imagery, but because the act of communication has been eroded by the separation of the event from the perception of the event. There is no longer an accountable sender, and an accountable receiver, connected through communication, just pure, mass transmission of information, Thus the continual presentation of bodies that are abused, injured, killed through isolated (real or fictive) catastrophes creates a radical distance for passive viewing: the bond between perception and action, receiving message and ‘answerability’, is dissolved. We find ourselves in a spectacle in which we can only look on.

Two productions the 2008 theatre season is ending with are both, in their own ways, questions of reaction and response to images of the unpicturable. Both are equivocally successful, but these are difficult, worthwhile attempts. Both exemplify the tendency of postdramatic theatre to withdraw from the reproduction of images into which all spectacles ultimately solidify, shifting instead towards non-emphatetic theatre understood as a situation within the totality of our world. The energy curve of the performance eschews the dramatic arc, and turns calm and static. That both of these performances “have nowhere to go” after the explosive start can only be seen as a formal error if we are expecting drama of the pain of others, employed to make us feel familiar feelings.

Lehmann notes:
“[In] a theatre that is no longer spectatorial but instead is a social situation (…) a reversion of the artistic act towards the viewers takes place. The latter are made aware of their own presence and at the same time are forced into a virtual quarrel with the creators of this theatrical process: what is it they want from them? The aesthetic object hardly has any substance any more but instead functions as a trigger, catalyst and frame for a process on the part of the viewer. Logically, the spectators get the theatre they 'deserve' individually through their own activity and willingness to communicate. Following visual art, the theatre turns back to the viewer.”

3. Since contemporary European theatre is my cup of tea, particularly when it leans towards intellectual, formally clever, or Germanic, I had high hopes for the Red Stitch production of Christian Lollike's The Work of Wonder (original title: The Wonder: The RE-Mohammad-TY Show), staged by Andre Bastian. I was expecting to like it in the face of a whole disapproving world. Instead, I left East St Kilda aggravated, yet confused about the core of its failure. If nothing on that stage added up, was the text, the milieu, or the director to blame?

The Work of Wonder.

As it usually happens when a production does not, in any way, speak to me, I tried to view it with all sorts of different eyes; perhaps it speaks to someone else. Finally, I found my clef browsing through video clips of a Danish production of the same play. The Work of Wonder is staged as a chaotic talk-show, of that semi-intellectual poseur and attention-seeker kind Europe abounds with; different characters are broadcast in on a large screen, and there is a great deal of dancing to rock music. And suddenly it worked. The long exposition about 9/11 being the greatest work of art, with the counter-argument that the famine in Africa is greater, more artistically coherent, larger number of victims, no set beginning nor end…, was now a mirror of another, self-satisfiedly smart-arse society; and every time the Hollywood actors interjected to tell us that, when we want to hear a story about others, we really want a story about ourselves, we had to agree, then look down in shame because it was exactly what we were getting.

There is a cohesion between the stage action and the audience Weltanschauung in this configuration that allows for Lollike's extremely complex decision to change tune in the last quarter, and suddenly present us with a carefully enacted pain of others. An American woman whose fire-fighting husband is missing; a Chechen schoolboy hostage; a Somali woman in a rape camp; and Mohammad the terrorist. Having had to agree, theoretically, on the moral incongruity of pain spectatorship, we are suddenly getting our work experience.

My introduction of a production by means of another production was, perhaps mainly, to absolve playwright Lollike. I would not dare insinuate that there is one right way of doing this play (or any other) – merely that the Red Stitch incarnation was an exceptionally confusing failure to make sense. It is a reasonable assumption that Bastian could not communicate his intentions to the actors, but a greater problem is that he does not seem to know, or care about, his audience. It would be very difficult for any group of Australians, and particularly the Red Stitch audience (which is only a slightly more left-leaning MTC crowd), to relate to the supreme cynicism with which Central Europeans, having spent the 1990s with bloodshed on their doorstep, observed the carnivalesque combination of schmaltz and military porn that poured in through the US media after 9/11. The collapse of the Twin Towers, in this country, was taken very personally. The sense of identification was incommensurate, perhaps, but nonetheless real, and distinctly opposed to the smirking distance Mitteleuropeans assumed, allowing for quick dissipation of compassion once neo-cons started orchestrating minor world wars. As a result, Stockhausen's statement in 2008 Melbourne sounds eerie, charmless.

Lollike's is a cynical play looking for a cynical audience. Red Stitch's is a sentimental audience looking for emotional cues. In the last, semi-serious quarter, there is palpable relief in the audience as the sentimental catharsis finds its centre, not merely against Lollike's intent, but quite consistently undermining any other organisational logic that may form in the production. More unforgivably, Bastian locates the intellectualizing cynicism of the first part entirely in the disaffected world of clubbing juvenile artists, alienating the uncomfortable. In doing so, it fails on all fronts. It creates a play that leaves our predisposition for emotional porn shaken but solid, and outsources the discomforting hypocrisy entirely into the world of some other, unlikeable others.

The Work of Wonder.

4. The main aspect of The Bell Shakespeare / Queensland Theatre Company co-production of Heiner Műller's Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome, which has by now travelled the country, is its nonchalance. For a work of theatre in which limbs are constantly shed, blood spurted, and heads offed, it is shockingly lightweight. In the words of the inimitable Alison, it comes close to jolly japes about mutilation.

Earlier this year, mourning over an off-mark treatment of a dramatic text, I was reprimanded for not accepting the authorship of the director, a constructive criticism if there ever was one. Leaving aside Shakespeare, leaving aside Műller, leaving aside Elizabethan theatre and leaving aside Bell Š, shedding layers of context, culture, intent, what remains is an unusually interesting production. It is, strangely enough, the most Australian theatre piece I have ever seen.

Műller is one of those dark dudes whose work is infinitely performed in Europe, but who doesn't grace local stages often, putting him in the honourable company of Ionesco, Kane, Srbljanović, Genet. There is political, historical and moral complexity in his work, little cathedrals of thought, that may be too teethy, too disillusioned, too detached for this same 2008 Melbourne that cannot bond with Stockhausen. And the audience is not to be ignored. I have noticed that I react differently to the same theatre production depending on the milieu, depending on the publicity that coats it, the introduction notes, geared to different theatre-goers. What looked, in Zagreb 2008, like an intelligent, playful take on epic story-telling, looks, in Sydney 2009, like a danger of four hours of feelgood. If up-to-date cynicism fails in Red Stitch, how would East German, pre-1990 pessimism fare?

Instead, the Bell Š/QTC production manages to shape a fully local version of the same spirit, turning heavy disillusionment into nihilism lite. In the most insightful review to date, Alexis Harley notes that Anatomy Titus is, above all, a sabotage, a commentary on the inappropriateness of Titus Andronicus as an aesthetic achievement. Bell Š goes one step further: it is a sabotage of the viewing experience, in a way that is, for once, neo-Brecht for the local climate. If The Women of Troy is a highbrow employment of the aesthetic spirit of Rotten.com or Vice Magazine, Anatomy Titus is Verfremdung of Rotten. There is no gore catharsis: there is only gore alienated. It is stupendously inconsistent, with such consistency that it needs to be taken as intentional. The theatricality is brought in and dismissed, in moments of elevated acting, in verbatim employment of stage language; but so is the pared-down sobriety that would give modernized dignity to the same inappropriateness. If, instead of women, men are raping men with blue eye shadow, this is to de-sentimentalize the victim-woman and, in Harley's words, “to avert the terrible possibility that the rape may, to our porn-jaundiced eyes, seem sexy”. We are miles away from the locker and the vomit. What we get are a bunch of relaxed, playful young men enacting cartoon violence and pronouncing Elizabethan verse, with the same nonchalance with which, in other parts of the country, they will make jokes about the suffering of some coloured, distant people over barbecue, yet take the inconsequential melodrama of their own society seriously. The stretch between the insular she'll-be-right-mateship and the vague imperative of historical empathy are jammed into a beautiful image of contemporary Australian confusion.

Anatomy Titus. John Bell, Christopher Sommers, Steve Rooke.

There is no solace of beauty on this stage, no comfort of lyrical coherence. Just the futile, circular enactment of futile, circular violence, both rendered shabby and meaningless as a result. The play opens in a plywood box covered in gigantic red stains. As the bucket of fake blood is smeared across actors' bodies, as we come to expect each stain to be matched with a slaughter, the historical repetition of bloodshed is paired up with its repetition on stage, on this set, night after night; and then a moment of silliness, a gollywog doll or John Bell as Titus with a chef's hat, will shatter any cloud of sombre reflection this may have sparked on the purposefulness of our theatre-going, of our spectatorship. Blood-drenched books used as the only prop, apart from a plastic bucket of blood and a few kitchen items, reinforce the point. Larrikin irreverence at its disturbing finest. This is theatre strongly aligned, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps accidentally, with the critique of the society of spectacle.

<>Anatomy Titus. Christopher Sommers and Steve Rooke.

5. This brings us to another interesting question: was this an intentionally smart reading of Müller, or just my maverick reading of the production? Much of the local criticism has interpreted the production as the inability of a major company to make dark, visceral theatre. In a parallel universe, in 2006 Croatian National Theatre did a first mainstage production of Kane's Crave in the country. Visual data look promising enough, yet the reviews were uniformly negative: the stage was too big, the staging was wrong, there is a right way of doing Kane, this wasn't it. Considering that, technically, there isn't a right way of doing Crave, the sum of criticism could be summed up as a lament from the indy-minded: Sarah Kane is ours. A major theatre, the logic goes, has no freedom of interpretation. A radical playwright is re-invented as an untouchable classic.

Coupled with the shocked negative reaction by more conservative critics, in both cases, two sides are united in disapproval of this bridging of worlds. Quick dismissal closes an important argument, that of the place of invention within major theatre companies. Whether the Bell Š audience appreciates the point is another question altogether. Although, considering the numbers the company attract, and the variety within their audiences (that comes with numbers), I would imagine that enough audience members would understand the stage goingons, that the production is speaking to someone the way The Work of Wonder could not.

More importantly, its programming opens up the possibility that Anatomy Titus will contribute to the cultivation of another mainstream theatre audience, something this country badly needs.

The Work of Wonder. By Christian Lollike. English translation by Greg Hanscomb. With Dion Mills, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter & Chris Saxton. Director: André Bastian. Choreographer: Peta Coy. Set Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting Design: Stelios Karagiannis. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 19 Nov – 20 Dec.

Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome, A Shakespeare Commentary. By Heiner Müller. Translated by Julian Hammond. Director: Michael Gow. Design: Robert Kemp. Lighting design: Matt Scott. Composition and sound design: Brett Collery. With John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter. Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company. Malthouse Theatre, Nov 26 – Dec 6.

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Black Lung: Avast I & Avast II – The Welshman Cometh

I first encountered the Black Lung boys in Rubeville, in a Westgarth garage in 2006. As it often happens on the occasion of Fringe, the original venue had to be abandoned soon after the programs went to print, and I could be seen running up Smith St, having just read the handwritten notice on the ex-venue door, trying to get to a completely different suburb in five minutes. And it was worth every drop of sweat and every curse and kick of the tram door. Rubeville, I remember, was a ramble on the pursuit of money and fame. Some of it was obviously improvised, some of it probably wasn't. Most of the time, one just couldn't be sure. Eloise Mignon overdosed, vomited, and stepped out of character to complain about the gender politics behind her one-woman prostitution and drug abuse, surrounded with male heroes. Gareth Davies plotted to steal the Black Lung till and fly out of the country. Dylan Young offered his body to just about everyone in view. It was unpredictable, self-indulgent, plotless, but it was brilliantly written, fizzing with energy, and incredibly funny. It was brilliant theatre.

Having since missed all sorts of small-format Black Lung, including an intriguing-sounding Short + Sweet 10-minuter, 9 of which Davies spends raping Sacha Bryning (I hear), and Pimms in Fringe 2007, due to another venue catastrophe, it's been a relief to find Black Lung stable, intransient, programmed, unable to escape or collapse or disband or disappear, in the Malthouse Tower, presenting a revival of an old work, Avast, and an original sequel/prequel to it, Avast II. And they are still gorgeous, gorgeous boys.

The Black Lung boys.

Avast is grand and great. As we enter the Tower, completely transformed into a sort of magic shed of early manhood, all vintage porn magazines, rows upon rows of black umbrellas in the ceiling, graffiti on black walls ('Albert Tucker Mother Fucker'), animal skulls on wood panelling, damp Persian rugs on the ground and dead nannas in the corners, my companion smiles like only girls smile, and exclaims excitedly: “It smells like men!” Music is blaring, semi-naked dirty men with bushranger beards are jumping, dancing, and running through the space, and this chaos will seamlessly turn into theatre. Until it seamlessly turns out of theatre again, it will do the same as always: half of it, you will know, must be improvised, but you'll never be sure which half. Props will collapse, actors will seriously injure one another, bad stories will be told and audience members will try to leave only to get shouted at, and I quote: “Sit the fuck down or I'll punch your girlfriend in the face! That's rude!” (finding out that they were planted in the audience almost broke my heart). Among all this, the flimsiest narrative line emerges: two brothers reunited, for one to kill the other.

Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, the Malthouse-generated prequel/sequel, is a more coherent, more narrative-friendly performance. It has some semblance of plot, and is less of a meta-meander than Avast the First. It explains it, however, serving almost like an annotated commentary on the influences: an array of pop artefacts, from graphic novels (Preacher), films (Kill Bill), to cartoons (the Dragonball series). It is a western informed by the samurai Japan, by the gothic, by dungeons & dragons, a loose theme park of duty, family bounds, heroism, frontier mythology, resilience in the face of natural disasters, sword fights. It is a world devoid of women, where all the conflicts are between friends, fathers and sons. The story, if we should bestow such an honour on the ramble, follows an outlaw coming into the city, dragging an outcast, roped by the neck. The found man, nameless, with a hook instead of one hand, is baptised Diego because no-one can die without a name, and their arrival wrecks havoc upon the township, stirring shit in relationships between fathers, sons, friends (as already mentioned), and God. The narrative shifts left to right, following a logic of something other than plot, and music is employed like Melbourne doesn't get enough of it.

Death, and the melodrama of dying, are explored to no end, with Sasha Bryning pouring red paint on the necks of the cast, as they collapse one after another, while Henning, sitting on a couch in a corner, predicts the death of each cast member, from the grotesque (drowning, stabbing) to the mundane (prostate cancer, heart attack). Finally, the closure comes through the deus ex machina of American-accented monologue on the late Beatles and love, all sentimentality and nostalgia. The real content of the delivery is emotional, behind the avoidance of every motif and moment that happened on stage until then, just like male communication is predominantly about not saying anything. The logic of Black Lung is precisely the logic of that last monologue: rambling, elliptic, bursting with suppressed content, standing knee-deep in the murky waters of subconscious logic.

If there is one thing the Avasts are about, it's masculinity, in that primordial sense of strength, impermeable solidity, uncertain aloofness. (It's notable that someone like Christos Tsiolkas, a testosterone writer, an angry man, is an absolute anomaly in Australia although, for example, he would fit easily in the US literary mainstream. There is something repressive in the Australian story-telling, sense-making tradition that blocks not only femininity, but also unbridled masculinity.) All the usual problems of manhood and self-definition are present: from father-son and brotherly relationships, the insecure male sexuality, to the confusion of idols, roles and role models. It brings in boys icons from samurai and Nick Cave to superheroes and Son Goku. Deeply appealing images of freaks, gunmen, knights, strange animals, the lone saviour and the lone outsider are inflated, killed and exhumed, just like the God who descends only to be killed with a shotgun. All done with such irreverent, intelligent negligence for simple logic, that a girl spends the evening in giggles.

There is a rich undercurrent of contemporary mythology that Black Lung draws from, in a way that's openly juvenile, semi-certainly subconscious, but well-processed nonetheless. As stage content, it is glutinously over-the-top, indulgently amassing cultural waste on stage, pictures and phrases and postures and punchlines, letting them collide in montages of nonsense. But this is the over-active subconscious of humanity as refracted through the imbecile prism of pop culture. Just like myths are a drone of masses reduced to the most essential trickle of the most incisive images, stories, so is pop culture a choir of human confusion distilled into key dreams and nightmares. To dedicate one's life to trash, thus, may be a bit boring, lacking in variety, but a small dose is an immediate connection to all that's deeply true about life, without the filter of self-aware censorship.

Thomas Henning is an astonishing writer, and these two are, however strangely, solidly spoken-word pieces, although language is never more than another sign system to be blown up. The dialogue effortlessly shifts register from haute to pulp to slang, wrapping itself into knots of delightful hilarity. Dylan will attack the town preacher, “I'm thinking I might cut you down, like you cut me down and let me outside to rot!”, while the latter will defend himself fiercely: “Not to die, though. Not to die.”, while Johnno, who has changed into a woman midway through Welshman, leads a playful, seductive dialogue with Gareth by asking: “Have you ever killed a dragon?”, to which he deadpans: “Yep.” It goes off on tangents, from attachment to dead mother, dead father, brotherly rivalry, transgender conversation (Sacha Bryning does a feminist stand-up routine, but with an entirely male body language and intonation). Yet the verbosity is paired up with the most exquisite visual sense. A 1930s panama gentleman, a procession of strange animals behind a brotherly conversation, gay jokes, stadium rock, all is raised and dropped onto the text, onto the audience, with such diamond-sharp cohesive logic, that against all odds it feels like a journey, not a train crash.

One of the main qualities of Black Lung is the overwhelming freshness they bring to the theatre experience. The energy with which these guys (particularly Gareth Davies, the Prince Charming) jump across the stage, perfectly comfortable while hopping from silliness into acting into meta and back conveys a strong sense of understanding, agreement within the group. Whatever physical violence happens on stage is real, not clumsily enacted (as is usual); performers burst into giggles; there is enough unexpected, contextless nudity to make one feel that the performers are simply taking the piss. It's consistently uncertain what's structured, and what isn't, as the language and the imagery are constantly destroyed and renewed, in a way that feels sometimes dictated, sometimes improvised, but always purposeful. I don't remember my last theatre performance after which the performers could be heard shouting in the foyer: “No, he didn't really get hurt! It's called theatre, people!” The early, almost child-like thrill of real people, tangible, touchable, approachable, mortal, in the spotlight in front of you, comes alive again.

Black Lung are probably the most significant young company in Melbourne, if not more widely. Hold on to these tickets, boys and girls, they will be collectables soon. Unless, of course, the whole band disbands in a few years, frustrated by lack of funds, poor audiences, and our newspaper critics. (The audiences, for now, have been good, I should acknowledge. The blogosphere is buzzing. The funds are still not desperately needed. They're young.)

Avast and Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, a Malthouse / Black Lung co-presentation. The Black Lung Theatre Company: Sacha Bryning, Gareth Davies, Thomas Henning, Mark Winter, Thomas Wright, Dylan Young. Sound designer / musician: Liam Barton. Lighting designer: Govin Ruben. Stage manager: Eva Tandy. Malthouse Theatre, 12 November – 6 December 2008.

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The Women of Troy; a more discursive response.

A high-school boy, at the end of The Women of Troy, tells me uncertainly: I'm not sure if it's not making me feel anything because I've been desensitized by television… Despite the necessary reservation we should have for this self-analysis, as children today have been so overanalysed in their exposure to televised and game violence that they are conscious of the expectations placed on them to be heartless before their time, the boy is correct.

I am reading, over and over, The Women of Troy described as powerful, shattering, poignant, and these are such disingenuous words. It is, quite the contrary, deliberately distancing, alienating, from beginning to end. If anything, we may guiltily leave the Malthouse Theatre feeling like we should feel shattered, unsure whether it's not touching us because we're philistines, or because we've become desensitized to Abu Ghraib as idea and image, but that is the extent of the emotional reaction. And that is, ultimately, the problem with The Women of Troy: it doesn’t seem to exist for an audience. It doesn’t want to make us feel, it doesn’t appear to want to make us think. If anything at all, it wants to disgust.

The Women of Troy.

Staging a clef is a very common way of modernising a theatre classic: dressing it up with imagery or situations from another time, usually contemporary, in order to bestow some relevance onto the text, some universal resonance onto our time. However, semiotically and dramaturgically, it makes a mess more often than not: all those colliding, flapping bits, all those elements contradicting one another. A classic, according to Calvino, is a work that has never finished saying what it has to say. To that purpose, I believe the theatre maker(s) has every right to dismantle it completely, build onto whichever thread of relevance she wants to follow. Or, having no emotional connection, she can stage it as a piece of historical formalism, in the key of an era, even if this means to succumb, like MTC, to neotraditional nothingness. Present an ancient Greek tragedy as a detention camp dress-up, however, and it opens up more problems than it solves.

The Women of Troy is a very clear manifesto on the banality of evil, from the blood-stained blue carpets to the torturers in mismatched tracksuits, helped by the chorus which, whenever there's blood, launches into classical muzak in direct defiance of Adorno. The plight of Trojan women after the fall of Troy is shown in bright light, completely de-romanticized. However, that seems to be the extent of the production's conscious intent at saying something.

It is not quite clean if either of the two conflicting elements is meant to be alienating, and if either should provide emotional content. Perhaps we should recognise our shock and horror as we recognise the motifs of Abu Ghraib, and the lines of Euripides would then make this violence strange. If correct, this is simplistic logic: no emotional content travels with these visual quotations, because they are just that. Clean, empty quotations.

Susan Sontag was deeply concerned about the effect that existence in a culture shaped by a sustained reproduction, recycling, of imagery, had on morality. In Regarding the Pain of Others she considers the ecology of images created by the way photography tears fragments of reality out of their historical and geographical contexts, mixing them freely into a visual soup of pop, iconic, ready-to-use images, and compares it to the surrealist collage. This promiscuous aestheticisation of experience, in her words, “makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” It is not merely, thus, that being exposed to a pastiche of shocking images does not provide one with understanding of the complex ways in which suffering somewhere else exists in the same reality with our comfortable experience of regarding suffering on stage. More insidiously, being repeatedly exposed to shocking, brutal images hardens us against feeling shocked, feeling brutalized, by them. The repetition and the distance makes them feel less real, banalises.

Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, recently shown at MIAF, is a crystal-clear counterbalance to this approach. In an interview, Sussman said she merely tries to give an experience that’s meaningful to the audience, and this, I think, is the point of difference. Otherwise, the two works are incredibly similar: both visually modernize an ancient story depicting mass violence on women, barely if at all condemned, (certainly presented as inevitable), and both plunge deep into visual quotations, building their work as a collage. But, while Kosky condemns us to tourism in other people’s pain, Sussman stacks a precariously balanced tower of references to ideas, ideals, aspirations, desires, fears. There may be not a word in Sabine Women, it is nonetheless as intelligent as an essay. Wall Street masculinity, desire for the orientalised feminine, the classicist, fascist and modernist right-angle order, the polished muteness of women’s magazines, echo throughout this work that’s never safe, never polite, but always, always meaningful. Sussman does not quote ready-made images to tickle ready-made emotional responses: she is opening these images to scrutiny through displacement, and tracing our attachment to the dreams they cloak through historical alignment, finding lines of connection between seemingly disparate images. The effect is as riveting as The Women of Troy numbs.

The Rape of the Sabine Women.

As an antidote to superficial, iconic, recycled image of pain, Sontag demanded the explanatory, intellectual potential of words, arguing that war photography belongs to the newspapers, surrounded with words. I am willing to agree, if only because the banal numbed shock of a recycled image has no meaning except as an artefact of our culture, important only in context. Morally, the image of a prison guard photographing a hooded prisoner has as much weight as a discarded candy wrapper.

So, it could be that we should emotionally connect to the brilliance of Euripides's play, in a crisp new 'translation', and the brutal, industrial ugliness of the prison camp setting, of the violence and the muzak, should distance the human drama. In fact, Alison praises its effectiveness as modernised tragedy.

But is it?

In On Christian Theology, Rowan Williams writes: One point that needs making at once is that the tragic by definition deals with human limit; that is, with what is not to be changed. There is pain in the world that is, so to speak, non-negotiable. The suffering that has happened and cannot be made not to have happened (the irreversibility of time) is, in spite of various kinds of vacuous, insulting and brutal rhetoric, religious and political, unchangeably there for us. (…)

And then quotes Howard Barker’s 49 Asides for a Tragic Theatre, among which:
Tragedy resists the trivialization of experience, which is the project of the authoritarian regime…
In the endless drizzle of false collectivity, tragedy restores pain to the individual.

But is that what The Women of Troy does?

I wish I could agree. I wish I felt that human suffering, the suffering of women through wars, was dignified in this production. If it happens at all, it happens through Robyn Nevin’s masterful realisation of Hecuba, because she is able to both rage Greek, and be the broken prison-camp shell of a human being, and not appear a puppet. The two halves, the decorous Greek and the cheap documentary Abu Ghraib, are so incoherently plastered one onto another, the production asks us to make such leaps of imagination, aesthetic adjustments, from flicking phone cameras to polytheism, that one would need to be a tightly programmed robot to do it successfully. If Hecuba, switching from gorgeous, profound defeat, numb humiliation that has already become shame, as Primo Levi poignantly concluded, to making fierce Greek statements about honour and state, still stands as the emotional centre of the production, it is due to Nevin’s fantastic performance, not the internal logic of the piece. The three-headed chorus alternates between apathy, scrambling for food, and obtuse singing, functioning as a do-all backdrop, perhaps, but never as three human beings. And the representation of Helen as a sort of mafia wife is either outrageously inappropriate, or confirms my doubt that there is little empathy for the women of Troy in this production. Nothing can validate the black coat, the sunglasses, the hubris. A person condemned to death clings onto dear life. You need to not understand bare desire to survive to smother survival into grotesque.

Melita Jurisic and Robyn Nevin. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

This is, ultimately, what The Women of Troy does – it tries to not so much shock, as to nauseate. Repulse. It makes things grotesque, and that seems to be its ultimate goal. The grotesque of Cassandra’s rape, for example, is in the way it happens in a closed cupboard, and not in plain view. The image of Cassandra crawling out, underpants drenches in blood (certainly an excessive amount) around her ankles, is an image meant to disgust, not to make think, and certainly not to provoke compassion. It is not the shocking graphic revelation, but the choice of what’s shown, and what’s hidden, that makes it something other than a simple, bare witnessing of violence.

There are, as usual, elements that work, perhaps surprisingly. The planarity of body direction, used greatly in Navigator too, results in visual banality that’s quite intriguing, and is mirrored in effect by the back wall, a flat surface of filing cabinets and school lockers. The most effective device employed to physically show the precarious, exposed vulnerability of these women is to constantly make them balance on small cardboard boxes. There are at least two moments in which, perhaps unintentionally, a palpable emotional connection was established between the play and the audience. The entrance of Andromache, perhaps a side-effect of pregnancy and fine costume. The other was a song, the Balkans mourning song, perhaps because it finally dispensed with the sugary muzak to offer something more felt, something relating to the narrative. For the rest of the time, and this needs to be said, the audience tries hard, very hard, to empathise. If Hell is the absence of compassion, we spend the entire show trying to save ourselves.

Melita Jurisic. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

There were two intellectually interesting features. The choice of muzak, first, a random selection of madrigals, Bizet, Mozart, When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you. And second, the BBC Radio voice on the speaker, announcing the tortures to be bestowed upon each one of the royal daughters. This was not your normal psychotic German bureaucrat, administering genocide as a job description. This was the polished enunciation of an educated gentleman, explaining the options to Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and advising them not to try to find their own alternatives, because everything had been predicted and provided for already. This was one genuinely subversive element in the play: in my mind, it acknowledged that the concentration camps were invented in South Africa, that the holocaust was the product of the cultured, urbane mind, exterminating the world because it didn't fit in their little definition of civilization. It also, somewhat funnily, related to that strange way in which, I believe, Anglophones identify with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Both because they seem to see their drama as the basement to Shakespeare, and because they identify with the search for first principles, analytical approach to life, basic questions of cause and purpose. It was a moment of Sussman-level intelligence in an otherwise banal pastiche of borrowed imagery. And yet, I don't think it was intentional. The first thing the gentleman sitting next to me did, when the lights came up, was to mention the incomprehensible question of Germans and the concentration camps.

We came wanting to feel, and we were not allowed to. Alright. Had there been intellectual content instead, had we been accused of something other than insensitivity, perhaps the experience wouldn't have felt so empty. I went away from The Women of Troy initially only underwhelmed. But, the more I thought about it, the more this feeling turned to fury. The chorus of three women, dressed in white tights and singlets, their womanly silhouettes so crushingly humane, remind one of the most ordinary of women, who spend their time at home wearing quite the same clothes. Smeared with blood, bruised, electrocuted, this is the most potent image in the entire production. And Robyn Nevin's Hecuba, right in the middle of the play, reminded me very strongly of my grandmother, who survived her own war by collaborating with whoever marched through, and cleaned up behind the partisan army in the end, burying some German soldiers behind the house with the rest of her family. There is a real and deep history of women in war. Women suffer in wars, and suffer greatly: this is not an abstract subject. And yet, Kosky’s production seems to treat the suffering of women in war as simply yet another image to be subverted, a theme to refract through a visual prism, and confuse. It is deeply unfelt.

Why make these intimate revelations about women, make them wear home clothes and resemble living grandmothers? Why humiliate them if it isn't even in order to bring their tragedy closer? Undress them on stage in order to distance them from us, to prove a point about the banality of mass media? How demeaning, disrespectful and offensive to present them like this: dirty, violated, deconstructed and disjointed, forced to now sing, now shiver numbly, passively, now invoke gods. Interrupt their pain with changes of register, scale it up and down with grotesque. The worst plight of the women of Troy, in this production, is in the way they are not allowed their suffering.

Ian Kershaw, in Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, wrote that calmly observing the suffering inflicted on others would not be possible without apathy, yet apathy was the most common reaction to the proliferation of hate propaganda. If there is a way to avoid apathy, it is not through complicity with the promiscuous aesthetisation of experience. Not even in the theatre.

The Women of Troy, by Euripides, adapted by Tom Wright and Barrie Kosky, directed by Barrie Kosky. Designed by Alice Babidge, lighting by Damien Cooper, musician Daryl Willis, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Robyn Nevin, Melita Jurisic, Arthur Dignam, Natalie Gamsu, Queenie van de Zandt, Jennifer Vuletic, Patricia Cotter and Kyle Rowling, Giorgios Tsamoudakis and William Larkin. Sydney Theatre Company, presented by Malthouse Theatre, until November 22.

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Malthouse Season One 09

The Malthouse Theatre launched its first season of 2009 last night, with some bagpipes and smoke, but overall less frill than I am normally accustomed to, fewer musical numbers, shorter speeches, all much more business and much more enjoyable than usual. Perhaps they just wanted to hurry up and present their baby? I would understand. For Season One 09 looks incredibly exciting. And not they-gave-us-free-booze exciting. No no. It must be one of the most interesting-looking launch seasons I've seen in a while, by any theatre in any country. I am taking precious time off my other three hundred thousand duties to rave about it.

The flagship show, the blockbuster opening the Merlyn in January, is Bűchner's Woyzeck, with an all-exciting cast of people like Hamish Michael and Bojana Novaković, and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (performed by Tim Rogers, also in the cast; hm), after which the Merlyn will host Dance Massive, a tiny little (not massive) dance festival for those who live outside the dance ghetto. Obvious choices: Chunky's Mortal Engine and a mini-program of Rogue (who are, in a radical departure from the usual Melbourne dance business, fundamentally those same dancers that evenly spread themselves between Chunky and Guerin Inc.), but also Lawn, by Splintergroup, which looks great and comes with a raving recommendation by the polemicist. Finally, Tom Wright rewriting Voltaire's Candide into an Aussie battler, the whole called Optimism, to be all picket fence and lawn. But, unlike Kantor's previous, more suspiciously overwrought concoctions of high and low, this looks like a sound, smart idea, particularly apt for our times of market crashes in front of incredulous witnesses. And will be possibly the last instance of Anna Tregloan's design for the Malthouse, as she heads up to the S-city (in the only sad news of the evening). Weep, Melbourne. Weep.

Beckett opens with a new commission by Lally Katz (dubbed our theatre princess) and Chris Kohn, Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, which explores the pre-war vaudeville scene in the city and will have people like Julia Zemiro on stage. Oh how beautiful to look at a dubious concept and feel you trust your people to shape it into something wonderful. Lally could write on dishwashing and it would make riveting theatre.

Next, Kafka's Monkey, a Young Vic production with Kathryn Hunter playing a monkey playing a man – getting to the Malthouse via Sydney and looking all scrumptious. Finally, a new Peter Houghton piece, “driven by wit, cynicism and tight-slapping humour”. Unlike anything Houghton has ever done.

The Tower, apart from the abovementioned Rogue, will host Adam Cass's I Love You, Bro, which opened and closed at Fringe 07 with clamour and confusion, as we briefly agitated, trying not to miss yet another recommended show in the Fringe mania that takes over in September, and subsequently failing. The Malthouse program-makers, to illustrate the difficulties of sifting through Fringe, saw I Love You, Bro in the UK. Although I'm not sure that the one independent production of 2007 that needs to be rescued from oblivion is this one precisely, I've heard a lot of good about it, and what sort of argument am I making here, really? A confused one of a person who goes to bed late, gets up early, and misses beginnings of conference networkings in order to write blogs.

Within the genre restrictions of medium-scale theatre programming, with all the concerns about long-term financial sustainability that running a viable institution of this kind entails, this looks like a very, very promising program. Perhaps even quite brave. Nothing, except the Houghton piece, strikes me as same old, same old. While things have been looking vaguely down for the local theatre, with Brett Sheehy looming on the horizon and everything being a little bit disappointing, all of a sudden I feel quite hopeful that the next year may be the best one yet. Or something like that anyway.

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The Kreutzer Sonata/A Large Attendance in the Antechamber; angrily.

30.xi. 2007. La Mama presents: The Kreutzer Sonata. A Night Train Production. Based on a story by Lev Tolstoy. Adapted and performed by Humphrey Bower. With music and dolls by Jess Ipkendanz. And lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. Season ended.

2.xii.2007. Malthouse Theatre: A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. Written, designed and performed by Mr Brian Lipson (and Sir Francis Galton). Tower Theatre, 20 Nov-9 Dec 2007.

The appreciation of anything, let alone art, depends to a great extent on the milieu of the said thing, and to assign genius or divine inspiration to something that touched you personally may be a myopic gesture in confronts to the entire world outside your self. On the other hand, to try to control the dynamics of the performer-audience relationship is a mad desire: I enter theatres immersed in deep thoughts on the implications of the safety discourse on children and women; putting together a manifesto on the need to accept risk in public space or how not all flirting is harassment; irritated by newspaper articles; in love; after a domestic argument; with a layer of anxiety stirring deep inside me after having just witnessed something violent (a car crash, a tax break); or having heard a beautiful piece of music that has left me vulnerable and ready to crack open, like a castle in the sand or a soufflé. How do you account for the possibility of all of that?! That Zeami dedicated sixteen books to this relationship is not a coincidence (Zeami whose father was able to reach both the court audience and the peasants through his complete mastery of nô). The magic of art is in it being, really, a dialogue. It speaks to you, you respond back. We could argue: hence Jérôme Bel now, and not those people doing the same twenty years ago. The audience is different, and it matters.

Another problem, as usual, is posed by the programming as it is currently in these lands, with not enough time to think if one wants to write in time to reach the audience. This is my old lament: if theatres in English had a repertoire, not merely a performance schedule, there would be less need to immediately assign stars or hats or thumbs up or down to particular little shows, and more time to engage with the ideas, themes, references and implications of particular works, in conjunction with other works. It would be possible to say, I came in thinking about the lyrics in folk music, and the play then made me think, dot dot dot. Is there anyone in this country that gets paid to write on theatre with a lungful of idleness? With the simple joy of writing on theatre? Without the ratings at the bottom or an agenda in the headline? On film, yes and profusely. On visual arts, easily. But on theatre?

Sonata and Antechamber arrived, in pair, after a couple of weeks of mediocre theatre, and how do I even begin to separate my experience from this context? There are other, superficial connections: a lone man on the stage; Humphrey and Brian knowing each other in person; most importantly, both works somehow connected to the existential problems of a nineteenth-century man. Would my opinion of them be different had I seen them in the opposite order? Would it be different had I been reading Dickens or Austen, not feminist rants on the exclusion of women from the nineteenth-century industrial city (complete with praise for the anti-flirt clubs of the 1920s)? Of course it would. So, instead of bending over text in order to justify why one left me shivering, and the other puzzled and slightly irritated, would it be possible to use the audience-art dynamics positively, and argue? For what else there is to do, once you're confronted with competent theatre? We're not here to watch, nod, and mumble, yes, well done; that's good lighting; that's nice delivery of volume and void. Imagine reading Dostoyevsky and going, hmm, that's good sentence structure.

The Kreutzer Sonata was an immensely delicate theatrical handling of a very sophisticated piece of literature. It seemed so easy, so effortless; and so does the Sistine Chapel, mind you. It was made out of nothing, it seemed at the time. Ether. Some Tolstoy and some Beethoven. One man with a voice, one woman with an electric piano and a violin, and a voice herself. Some dolls. Two chairs. Very little movement. Not a word too many. A man speaking, a woman accompanying on piano and violin, harmoniously complementing each other, never a note nor a word out of sync, I wondered if they were married more than once. And, two minutes into the show, nobody in the audience was breathing anymore. That theatre hypnosis, that sense of acutely aware immersion into unreality, descended upon us more completely than I had ever felt before. One man and one woman, holding us on their palm like a perfectly still raindrop.


Lola at Australian Stage very accurately compared it to being read to and, indeed, I spent a lot of time afterwards wondering why in the world this wasn't bad theatre when I myself kept thinking of radio. More specifically, of bedtime radio stories.

(My parents, very unusually for our time and place in society, read to me a lot, before learning to rationalise their energy and recording their greatest hits on audio tapes. Later I discovered the 19:45 (7.45p.m.) bedtime story on Croatian radio, and taped them instead. Originally simply read by a number of rotating people with trained voices, I returned to the 19:45 bedtime story some years later, nostalgically, only to find it corrupted by special effects, multiple voices, and – shock and horror – attempts at acting. Perhaps this is why, to this day, I am unimpressed by plays for voices and yet, to this day, my more romantic friends and I occasionally read to each other when bed-sharing occurs, on summer holidays and intercontinental visits.)

In retrospect, there was so much potential for failure, and the biggest success of Sonata may have been even more in what it avoided than in what it achieved. There was no attempt to enliven the form by speeding up, adding physical movement, by caricaturing minor characters, by removing the gravity and adding the farce – all things that Bell Shakespeare's atrocious The Government Inspector did recently; it was all most restrained, yet it was the most engrossing piece of theatre I had seen for a long time. There was, most significantly, no Russianly-pronounced English. Even the matryoshkas appeared delicately, just a little touch of recognition that this is a Russian story. But was it theatrical? There was movement. The story of the train passenger's tale unravelled, so dolls appeared, out of a suitcase, out of Bower's pockets, illustrating different characters. They were never put away, simply left standing on the little stage, in the corners, surrounding Bower, just like, when being told a story, one is introduced to a growing set of faces, names, behaviours, who don't simply disappear, but accumulate in the corners of the room. There was music, and the incredible harmony of music and spoken word, and there was the climax – much before the wife is murdered – with the dolls and Bower and Beethoven all rising high, with the protagonist pleading,

What is music? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully! Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have.,

and with yours truly in tears, devastated, amidst a shivering audience: feeling what?, and why?, the same confusion, the same unexplained shower of emotion. Why? How did they do what they did? I don't know. Was it theatre? It had to be theatre. Even if we argue that it was story-telling on stage, that it was a spoken-word performance, it brought a classic alive, in the way I never thought possible. It didn't make us indulge into our ability to appreciate dead nineteenth century worrrds, it rendered, with great effect, one man's attempt to grapple with meaning of art, love and life.

It served to remind me, ultimately, of high art, not in that dead, impotent, Robin Usher sense, but high art as Beethoven and as Tolstoy. High as in achievement, as in something done so well there is no point in doing it ever again. The more I thought that night, the angrier I got. I am a fan of both 19th century psychological realism and late baroque. While I dropped classical music for marital reasons, I abandoned Russian realism since moving to Melbourne for the sheer problem of beauty: used as I was to Zlatko Crnković's excellent translations that seemed to find the shared Slavic heritage for every word translated, that had me weeping over the resounding beauty of my own language reflecting in Dostojevsky, I could not imagine ever reading Russians through English. Instead, I decided, I would read all those Anglophones in original.

That night, I remembered my first visit to England, and the acute feeling I had then that the entire world is mistaken: that there is nothing that this country has given to the world of much consequence. Unwrapping the bundle we call world heritage, and excluding Shakespeare (who successfully presented some pertinent themes of his time in form that's still universally used), what art has been given to us by the Angles? Turner, yes, I thought. Some excellent literary modernism. But the rest, it seemed to me, was a bundle of affectation and cliché, or hobbyistic; short stops between more significant epochs and movements; Edgar Allan Poe between Goethe and Baudelaire. Detective novels! Landscape painting! Witty dialogue! That Oscar Wilde, really, is a writer of fairy tales, that Jane Austen's oeuvre was chick lit before its time (chick lit itself being a quintessentially Anglophone genre), and let's not forget the time I forced myself through Lady Chatterley's Lover (granted, in an atrocious translation, but one straight out of its time) and came out dismayed at the very thought of having to have sex ever again. D. H. Lawrence being a sort of pre-Raphaelite with a differing agenda. The easy moralism of Dickens, the emotional dishonesty of Wilde, the preponderance of quick wit, of nice turn of phrase, at the expense of genuine, you know, attempt to grasp meaning, to tell a truth. And all this, I thought, would not be such a huge issue – because would Croatia fare better on the scales of universal dharma?, no – were it not for the arrogance with which the English dismissed the entire non-Anglophone world, opting instead for the endless placid self-referentiality, which infuriated me while I was there. Why, I was thinking all night, have I been trying at all? I could have been reading Gogol, I could have been reading Stendhal, I could have been reading Balzac, Hamsun, Goethe, Chekhov and Chinese contemporary literature. I could have been re-reading Tolstoy, good grief, or some other of the Russian giants. Sonata reminded me of how much we owe to these writers, people one doesn't read simply to be able to use a nice phrase later, in conversation, during dinner parties; people one reads in order to understand life. In order to become a better human being.

I was very angry that night. I was, in my mind, denouncing table manners, smart tailoring, proper essay format, punctual clocks, and everything else I could somehow relate to the stale, polite Englishness that barred this/that civilisation from engaging in pursuit of truth and beauty with the brio of one Lev Tolstoy, or Ludwig van Beethoven.

And by now, dear reader, you may be predicting the problems encountered when two days later I witnessed A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. Oh, it's quality theatre again! Oh, the timing is right, the lighting works, the amount of seating is well-judged, all the theatrical trends are spot-on – the form is played with, the characters rebel from the author, the set collapses at the end – and it is by no means boring. Sir Francis Galton is impersonated by Brian Lipson to full effect, in a little box that makes him look deliciously funny. But to what purpose? I walked out asking myself and everyone else: why did that show exist? What gave Lipson the urge to create it? What did it want from us?


The logic of Antechamber, narrative, emotional, was opaque. There was not necessarily any need for the audience to be present: it was structured as Lipson's fight with Galton, for Lipson to explore his own engagement with Galton. When it ended, it ended due to the logic of this battle, not necessarily because the audience reached a stopping point. I, as an audience member, did not feel I've come to the end of the paragraph. To me, it was all getting murkier and murkier, harder and harder to follow, until it collapsed. Do you argue with a giant such as Tolstoy in here? Maybe you should. Maybe the careful pushing of buttons that Sonata achieved, pushing us up the ladder of paranoia (this man will kill his wife), then distracting us with Beethoven, love, faith, meaning of life, so that finally death hits us from a completely unanticipated angle, maybe that's something that postmodern form-destroying theatre should be capable of. Or learn.

It felt undecided: there was a man giving an honest lecture of his ideas, but trapped in a tiny box, dressed in a ridiculous costume, a man turned into a farce. What do you do when a farce is on eugenics? What was the purpose of Antechamber? To make the audience squirm, for sure. To make us think, oh-this-Galton-fellow, he had uncomfortable ideas about eugenics. Was that such a great leap of intellect? Was it meant to be? Was I meant to be shocked? Was I expected to be holding the Victorian male in much higher esteem before entering Tower Theatre? Was I expected not to know that the nineteenth-century Englishman also invented the concentration camp, and think, instead, that it was a fine and venerable creature? Would an honest engagement with Galton, as I think, involve getting under the skin of an emotionally poor human being in an emotionally poor civilization, stripping it down, feeling the soft bits, letting it out? I think so; and I think there are artists who do that within the twentienth-century form: Brecht, Kane, Lally Katz. As a farce, instead, Antechamber was in an emotionally very slippery place: it was provoking a hearty laugh on these silly people who, haha, had in them the seed of everything rotten about the twentieth century. How funny. How quaintly problematic. Let's be witty about it.

The simple fact that it was, fundamentally, a show about Brian Lipson was problematic in its own right. That it wasn't a show about Sir Francis Galton, the ultimate man of Victorian England, was another. While Sonata was an honest theatrical engagement with a text that honestly explored, without holding back, the problem of existing as a nineteenth-century male, Antechamber was a mannerist non-grappling with the same non-grappling Victorian male, who preferred to make maps of pretty girls and drink bloody tea to engaging with another human being. If Galton was alive today he'd be renovating. He'd be train-spotting. Bush-walking. Having any of the myriad pointless hobbies, all of which seem to require inelegant clothing, that the Angles are so dedicated to, and that most other peoples have no need for, because they have healthy sex; talk to their neighbours; tell their partners they love them; drink their alcohol without a sense of guilt; and go out with their underage children late at night. (If poked only a little bit more, I'll break into a rant on anti-flirt clubs.)

Antechamber is still a show worth seeing, for the stagecraft, for the ideas, for the unexpected; and because going to theatre is a life-affirming act, while watching televised sport is not. It is by no means unintelligent, boring, or incapable of making one think lots of interesting thoughts later; but you do understand that I feel an obligation to include this paragraph, this ultimate act of thumbs-up, because the theatres in this country have performance schedules, and not repertoires?

on Kreutzer: Lola MacMillan's review at Australian Stage Online;

on Antechamber:
Alison's review at Theatre Notes;
Cameron's review in The Age;
Michael Magnusson's review at OnStage Melb;
some background info from the ever-wonderful Chris Boyd at The Morning After.

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