Tag Archives: MIAF

Review: Daniel Schlusser Ensemble: M+M (way overdue)

While nominally based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Daniel Schlusser’s M+M does not attempt to represent the text: a perhaps wise decision given that the novel is arguably – more than 500 theatrical versions later – fundamentally unstageable.

Unwieldy and expansive in both size and scope, Master and Margarita weaves three narratives wildly disparate in theme and tone: a hilarious grotesque in which the Devil with his entourage (including the vodka-swilling cat Behemoth) wreaks havoc on the 1930s Moscow; the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, troubled both by his conscience and a raging headache; and the story of Margarita, who makes a pact with the Devil to save her lover, the imprisoned author of a novel about Christ in the anti-religious Soviet Union.

It is a perplexing work and has been read as an hommage to Goethe’s Faust, a denunciation of the human condition under Communism, a Menippean satire on Moscow’s literary circles, a Tolstoyan exploration of Christian ethics, an absurdist grotesque in the vein of Gogol and Kharms, and an occult fantasy, richly informed by Freemason and medieval symbology.

Any familiarity with the novel, however, may be a hindrance more than an aid: M+M uses Bulgakov’s life and work merely as the starting point for an original theatrical exploration. Those searching for familiar characters and plot points may fail to grasp the peculiar beauty of this production.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 14 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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RW: Hofesh Shechter: Sun (way overdue)

Shechter’s choreographies are distinctly masculine: angry and political, they are socially and emotionally situated in the contemporary world. With hard and heavy bodies and momentous shifts of weight, they carry echoes of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva – the company for which he formerly danced – but are more overtly narrative and theatrical. Also a percussionist, Shechter’s self-composed scores strongly shape these pieces with their relentless rhythmic pulse and propulsion.

Australian audiences have been able to follow Shechter’s work closely – while the choreographer is based in the UK, he has made frequent visits to Australian festivals, from early short works Uprising and In Your Rooms, to his 2011 work Political Mother. That show suggested Shechter was still struggling with the transition to long form, and that issue remains apparent in Sun.

This review was published in Guardian Australia on 13 October 2013. Read the whole review here.

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

Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario Del Curto.




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

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

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

stifters dinge

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

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

carnival of mysteries

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

tomorrow, in a year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love in a cold climate (reviewed: Berlin Schaubuehne’s Hedda Gabler, BalletLab’s Aviary, motiroti’s Journeys of love and more love, Hofesh Schechter’s Political Mother)

love in a cold climate


hedda gabler

Hedda Gabler, Schaubühne Berlin. Photo Arno Declair.

Instead, it disappointed. Two long, interval-less hours of idle chitchat—not even funny!—of three self-absorbed, coarse men, tied together with strings of manipulation pulled by a beautifully superficial young woman.

The acting is delicate and economical, all sideways glances, accurately angled slouches, moments of casual intimacy (a short shoulder massage) as denominators of underappreciated affection. Ostermeier’s Hedda heralded the move away from the whizbang of the 1990s to the simplicity and almost deliberate homeliness of the 2000s (think Benedict Andrews’ The City for STC in 2009, Sasha Waltz’s Medea in 2010). But, like all trendsetters, this production exhibits inelegant single-mindedness: it is not much more than two studious hours of bored bourgeoisie, even if the psychological detailing is very fine.

Modernising Hedda has worked well in some ways: divine inspiration, intellectual mediocrity and pettiness are timeless qualities, and it is enormously satisfying to watch Hedda smash with a hammer (not burn) an old laptop (not manuscript). However, unable to explain Hedda’s idle, self-defeating cruelty as thwarted life energy turned in on itself due to societal constraints (divorce has been legal for some time, as has a woman’s right to work), the production has to have her a spoiled child, too acclimatised to a life of idle nail-filing to realise herself in any Beauvoirian sense. All characters go down a notch on the maturity scale as a consequence and what we see is less brutally honest than distantly odious.
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Capsule review: Hiroaki Umeda’s Adapting for Distortion & Haptic. Or: Dude Dance.

Dude dance, or boy-choreography. The foyer discussion turned into an animated bitch fight about whether once we conclude that all men tend toward autism (as Simon Baron-Cohen argues, and so did some foyer men), this excuses male choreographers from engaging with emotion. I expected a work in the general category of Mortal Engine, and thought it was even closer to it than just generally close. All possible interpretations of Adapting for Distortion as metaphors for how contemporary technology eats people are as possible as they are simplistic: how innovative and progressive to produce the very object of purported critique (?!).

It was not the quality of the execution, but the thinness of it, that put off the female part of the foyer. During the first part of A for D, I remember thinking: ‘well, I’m sure there are complex mathematical concepts behind the realisation of this work, but I don’t care because it’s just so damn pretty’. During the second half, I was thinking: ‘well, I don’t care how good-looking this light-and-sound machine is, there is no soul here’. Pay attention: not ‘heart’. It was not emotion that was missing, it was depth.

Dude Dance is technological, not emotional, by default. Hence Simon B-C: it’s Asperger’s choreography. I’ve seen in the work of other exponents of Dude Dance attempts to address this lack by tacking sentiment onto it (see Mortal Engine for the most crystalline example), and the whole work collapsing into a heap, now guilty both of heartlessness and sentimentality. However, the most interesting (to me) proponent of Dude Dance, Wayne McGregor, puts together works that are as emotionally illiterate as they are in every sense sublime; if anything, the other-worldliness of McGregor’s concepts universalises his dances into something like philosophy on slender legs.

I am in no doubt that Hiroaki Umeda aspires to making philosophy on slender legs too; alas, his work is still closer to a video game.

Parenthesis: I loved Haptic up until the moment another foyer guy insisted that for him it had all the qualities of early Super Mario. Until that point, Haptic was a colourful dance macaron of sorts: much less brutal than A for D, its combinations of complementary colours and a moving man creating intensely hallucionatory effects in one’s mind. A pink man dancing behind the black man; that sort of thing. Until the Super Mario point, I was deeply taken with the experience and, to the extent to which the judgement of a girl can override a boy’s keen-eyed identification with Umeda’s preoccupations, I would argue it is a subtle, beautiful and rich work.

But I came out feeling an uncanny urge to watch some Bill Viola. Inappropriate and unfair as this may be, Umeda’s diptych seemed to have tickled just the right part of me. By putting on a hi-tech binge of sub-emotional effect, which buzzes but also fizzes away, it seems to provoke a need for a hi-tech sub-emotional experience that hits you in the gut instead. It was as if we came out on a dubious, nervous high, and needed to validate it with a satisfying come-down.

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Three perhaps not-so-obvious points on ‘Pornography’ (the play, not the genre)

I do need to preface this comment by noting I am writing it from behind the opaque screen of a 38°C fever, and that I saw Pornography as the swine flu was comfortably settling in. It was, however, a remarkable theatrical event, for many non-obvious reasons.

1st non-obvious reason: demonstrating that an artists’ festival is not a punters’ festival
Pornography was the first MIAF 09 show to really polarise the audience. You wouldn’t know this from the mainstream press, of course. The artists and the theatre-makers hated it with a passion, calling it trite, facile, lazy, not trying hard enough, and a Brett Sheehy show. All for a reason. Kristy Edmunds has worked very hard on turning MIAF into an artsts’ festival, and artists come to MIAF expecting to see courageous, bold and innovative developments of their art shown, demonstrated. You could trace the reverberations of particular acts in the local performance for years after: Jerome Bel in Attract/Repel, Societas Raffaello Sanzio in glimpses, Forced Entertainment across the board.

As is becoming clear, that’s not Brett Sheehy’s idea of a festival. Pornography is not theatre-maker’s theatre. It’s people’s theatre. In that respect, the equivalent of last year’s Romeo & Juliet (and therefore likely to win the people’s vote this year.) To every outraged theatre-maker in the audience there were at least two exhilarated punters from the eastern suburbs, clapping themselves numb. Again, it would be easy to snark at the theatre-illiterate plebs, but that’s not what’s going on here. In this year’s festival, Pornography features as the prime example of well-made theatre: disciplined, taut, contained, focused and effective. While it is true that it breaks absolutely no new ground, formally, narratively or conceptually, therefore leaving the part of the audience that shows up with notepads and pens in a state of dismayed disappointment, it is undeniably a very well realised theatre piece.

The only complaint I have heard from the other side of the barricades, which we may term The Hawthorn Side (with a tinge of irony), has been linguistic: why has it been done in German? We would have preferred it in English. Why not bring an English production?

2nd non-obvious reason: elucidating arcane questions of translation in theatre
Let’s revisit the pedigree of Pornography: a play by Simon Stephens on the subject of the London bombings of 2005, it was certainly written in English, and there is certainly a three-way translation going on in having it performed in German and re-translated into English via surtitles on three sides of the stage, but no one seems aware that the play was commissioned by that same Hamburg Schauspielhaus, which also, naturally, gave it its first production. The question of authenticity is turned upside down if you hear Stephens himself:

It couldn’t, says Stephens, have been written for the British stage. For a start, the subject was too raw: “It was so soon after the event. I would have felt guilty about fictionalising something very real. But writing for a German theatre freed me up.” It also allowed Stephens – who usually tells heartfelt, formally conventional stories – to experiment. Nübling is a characteristically German director: “I believe in theatre being the art of images,” he says, “not only the art of texts.” And so, says Stephens, “if I had written a play with a unified narrative, cogent characters and a three-act structure, he’d have fucked it up anyway.” None of the dialogue is attributed to any particular character – it’s up to the director who says what.

There’s a whole set of explanations for why Schauspielhaus Hamburg would do so: first, German theatre is director-oriented (or production-oriented, if you so wish), and is interested in seeing what different directors do to the same texts. While English theatre is terminally text-focused, always trying to find newer and fresher plays and voices, most European theatre will revisit plays and playwrights with great frequency, since it’s the particular take on the material that is really what makes theatre. This is why a non-emerging (or non-star) playwright, so to speak, could be held in such interest. (The contrast with Abbey Theatre’s Irish production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus is striking: the production adds so little to the extraordinary text that it’s hard to see it as anything other than words on stage, and hard to imagine why seeing another production of the same kind would be a significantly different experience.)

Secondly, with about 150 publicly funded theatres presenting around 5800 productions a year (of which about 360 world premieres), German theatre industry is a big market constantly looking for new material. The question of why Germans would be interested in a London story strikes me as odd, presupposing a cultural insularity that just isn’t there in Germany. After all, I don’t walk the streets of Melbourne (as I well could) wondering why Royal Shakespeare Company would be interested in such quintessentially Slavic stories as Uncle Vanya, do I?

The translation (of words, bodies and theatre into German) here reminds us, simply, of the process of imperfect translation that always already occurs in the theatre, which is metonymical and metaphorical in its core, which always traces real world on the sides of a black box, outdoors into indoors, past era and foreign countries into locals, mismatching ages, accents, general demeanour. Since theatre, unlike cinema, cannot ever vaguely pretend to be showing unadorned, unadulterated reality, than certainly this imperfect translation becomes one of its main charms? Brueghel’s imposing Tower of Babel, the vast backdrop to the Hamburg Pornography, is one such imperfect translation of an idea: the multicultural confusion of languages and intents, causing the failure of a grand idea (or is it just vain and presumptuous?) is as good a metaphor of the London Olympics/bombings as it is reductive and silly; but certainly it takes an outside eye to draw that parallel in such simple terms?

3rd non-obvious reason: proving Peter Craven wrong
Pornography is a production for Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus, the equivalent of MTC or STC: big, well-funded public theatre with a subscriber base, production exchange/touring arrangements with other such theatres, a core ensemble of 20-40 actors, an opera and possibly a corps de ballet. This is not, in other words, a work of a lone genius in a cave: it is a big-balled production, bringing to the citoyens of Hamburg new hot writing, in style. The equivalent of the Pamela Rabe’s God of Carnage; Benedict Andrews’s The City; or the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. It demonstrates very well what the standard good mainstream theatre production in Europe looks like, and in our city, chronically starved of decent mainstream, it is no wonder that the audience was so pleased. If half of all theatre in Australia looked like that, we would have nothing to complain about.

The whinging artists about town should probably consider that all successful formal experimentation relies on an educated audience. Pornography breaks no new formal ground, true, but it revisits the existing playing space for theatre with crisp, elegant matter-of-factness, demonstrating the poetic advantages of non-naturalism, anti-realism, metaphor, symbolism, metonymy, and so forth, to anyone with a working set of eyes. It must have done more for the form than the rest of the mainstream fare together, this year in Melbourne, and it has done so by explicitly shitting on Peter Craven’s recent argument for what-is-wrong-in-the-Australian-theatre. So explicitly, in fact, that we can trace it point-by-point.

Straight? NO. Classical? NO. “Showed what theatre could do rather than what could be done with the theatre”? NO. Naturalistic and muted? NO. “Delivered, on the note, without distortion”? NO ( Nübling had changed the text, rearranged the order of the episodes, and plastered a whole Babel at the back of the stage, hey). Indeed, it had many more of the qualities that for Craven exemplify theatre “too narcissistic to grow up”. Ugly-ugly aestheticism? JUST ABOUT. “Demolition site with its smeared body fluids and blood spitting”? Sounds correct. “Cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings”? Can I mention that Tower of Babel again?

The paradox is, of course, that Pornography, with its invisible light switches, its puzzle symbolising the woes of multiculture, its Coldplay singalongs, its classroom stage space standing indifferently for houses, offices, school yards, and swanky restaurants and THEREFORE blatantly middle-fingering naturalism, has immense and palpable appeal to the same middle-of-the-road taste Craven is speaking from. It is no wonder whatsoever Craven himself reviews the production so glowingly; and yet the workings of this production seem completely lost on him, working in a frenzy to prove that it is not because, but despite, the anti-realism that Pornography is such a lovely night at the theatre.

All of which strikes me as deeply ideological, but also really, really funny.

Pornography. Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Written by Simon Stephens. Director Sebastian Nübling. Set Designer Muriel Gerstner. Assistant Set Designer Jean-Marc Desbonnets. Costume Marion Münch. Music Lars Wittershagen. Lighting Roland Edrich. Dramaturgy Nicola Bramkamp & Regina Guhl. Cast Marion Breckwoldt, Katja Danowski, Juliane Koren, Hanns Jörg Krumpholz, Jana Schulz, Daniel Wahl, Samuel Weiss & Martin Wißner. The Arts Centre, Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 15-18.

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Spark launches! + high-brow literary notes

Spark Online finally launches as the super-awesome thing it is, both boobs and brains, and all four among cyan, magenta, yellow and black!

I wholeheartedly suggest you give it a look: I’ve spent the better part of the last two months sweeping the back rooms, fixing the plumbing, ripping up the carpets, and insert-your-own-strange-metaphor-for coding the php away. I am completely invested in that project now. I have crashed our database at least once, and rebuilt it underslept but victorious, tested improbable protocols on fellow bloggers, and made many more friends than I deserve. In my mind, the whole thing is vast and monumental.

On the other hand, my research work is going swimmingly, which means I’m learning GIS (Geographical Information System, and if you don’t know what it is you should, for it’s ruling your life, in a modest sense), but also that I’m not sleeping very much. MIAF has solemnly launched about tonight, and from now until the end of November, the only thing I’m really looking forward is the Chris Marker mini-festival at the Cinematheque in late October. The rest, from where I’m sitting, looks just like hard work.

On a more positive note, Sasha Waltz is showing work in Melbourne, which is all too rare a thing (I could tell you how often she’s been in Zagreb, Croatia – a place you’ll all have heard from Lally Katz’s Apocalypse Bear by now – but I won’t). If you don’t have a ticket to either Medea or Korper yet, boo hoo, they’re just about sold out. Sasha is a great, great woman, but more on this later in the month.

If I really have to make another announcement – and why not?! – I could add that I am going to Europe for Christmas. Some to see family, some to see my dentist (and just the financial benefit of not having an Australian dentist practically pays for the trip), some to see various friends in (and watch this feat of student economics) Lisbon, Berlin and London. Apart from London, which is an old hat by now, I am excited up to my ears. Lisbon is the best place in Europe I’ve been to so far, and Berlin, which I haven’t visited yet, is reported to be the actual best place in Europe. We shall see. I am, meanwhile, skimming on everyday expenses.

And finally, dear reader, the actual reason for this post: documenting a note that’s been sitting on my desktop for about a month now. A quote:

The nineteenth century invented the locomotive, and Hegel was convinced he had grasped the very spirit of universal history. But flaubert discovered stupidity. I daresay that is the greatest discovery of a century so proud of its scientific thought.

Of course, even before Flaubert, people knew stupidity existed, but they understood it somewhat differently: it was considered a simple absence of knowledge, a defect correctable by education. In Flaubert’s novels, stupidity is an inseparable dimension of human existence. But the most shocking, the most scandalous thing about Flaubert’s vision of stupidity is this: Stupidity does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progressl on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!

With a wicked passion, Flaubert used to collect the stereotyped formulations that people around him enunciated in order to seem intelligent and up-to-date. He put them into a celebrated Dictionnaire des idees recues. We can use this title to declare: Modern stupidity means not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas.

–Milan Kundera, from either Testaments Betrayed or The Art of the Novel.


Appetite: A post-critical review

Irony and humour are close neighbours, but they should not be confused. The Anglo-Saxons have a humorous vision of that enormous ennui which characterizes their social life, and which raises fears for the future of ‘industrial society’. They need this sense of humour; it makes boredom bearable. Humour can soften a situation, then go on its way. Humour manages to metamorphose the ennui of everyday life – almost. It may fail to transform it completely, but it makes it more decorative, and so henceforth the man who is bored can at least find his boredom enjoyable. He lives a life of well-being without pressing problems and devoid of all romance, and he cannot decide whether to feel comfortable or merely bored, a dilemma for which humour offers him a kind of solution. In any sociology of boredom, the study of Anglo-Saxon humour would bulk large.
– Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity

TWO. Attempts at an angle.
1. The formalist: it was not a brave fusion of physical and text-based theatre. It was a simple dinner drama with some dance tacked on.
2. The feminist: if we are meant to sympathise with a woman who has it all without feeling in any way fulfilled, shouldn’t we know more about her than her wealth and real estate situation? Shouldn’t we know, at least, what her job is? Doesn’t one find most basic meaning of life, sense of purpose in the work one does? Not if one’s a woman, Ross?
3. The logocentric: hasn’t this type of drama been done to death, from 19th-century to Albee? Haven’t we said everything there is to be said about failed dinner parties, about seemingly casual socialisation that implodes into tragedy? Shouldn’t we at least try to surpass The Doll’s House?
4. The social commentator: why did all the mainstream media reviews seem glowing? Why was there a strong applause at the end of every performance? The abyss between the theatre lordforgive community and the general public never seemed greater.

I dislike unsolicited wit, and will not even attempt to describe everything that went wrong with this show. It has been done, with both despair and zesty bitterness.

But shall we view it as an exposé of a mindset? Sugary music over vacuously clever lines of dialogue. False problems, false solutions. Every smart cliché of a society was laid bare, through shoddy execution, as nothing but vacuous placebo. We will get over existential misery by living every day like we’re falling in love!, we will play autistic music, and hold hands.

This is Haneke without the outside world ever shattering the walls. Instead, a momentary illusion of escape, a failed conclusion bound to bring nothing but further misery. The audience applauds, and learns another way to delusion. What a strangely thorough failure of insight.


Warnings: Simulated Drug Use, Full Frontal Nudity, Cigarette smoking – nicotine free, Adult themes, Strong coarse language.
– MIAF, program notes

Melbourne International Arts Festival. Appetite. Directed by Kate Denborough. Writer: Ross Mueller. Dramaturg: Brett Adam. Composer & Musician: New Buffalo. Set Design: Kennedy Nolan Architects. Costume Design: Paula Levis. Performers: Michelle Heaven, Brian Lucas, Catherine McClements, Carlee Mellow, James Saunders & Gerard Van Dyck. KAGE at the Arts Centre. Season hopefully ended.

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From the news

1. Ray Gill proves you don't need to have two mature thoughts in a text in order to get published by the mainstream press. I doubt that the people who appreciate such levity of thought would have any interest in reading arts commentary of any kind, which makes Gill something of a Bolt figure of the left-of-centre-press in this particular instance. A spokesperson for the admirers of incidental pornography. Each to their own.

2. Family Stories opens in Sydney at Griffin Theatre, and Nick Pickard, a man of many hidden talents, notes. Read his excellent introduction to the text and the author here, and do go see the play if you can. It is, quite simply, one of the best theatre texts of the last decade, if not century.

3. Apparently, both That Night Follows Day and Romeo & Juliet are excellent. Not my words, but I am seeing late performances, and what's the use of a post-climactic recommendation? None.

4. In case you need me to tell you about it, The Croggon Institute has been heroically blogging about the Arts Festival, and so have, less systematically, three of my favourite local theatre bloggers: in alphabetical order. All men, funnily enough. Now where is this world going?



Breaking all rules of good composition, I would like to start on an unrelated note. It leaves me wondering whether the atmospheric density, the sensual coherence, so common in Australian theatre (Liminal Theatre, cabaret, quaint circus, The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, and many many more), even art in general, from film (The Proposition) to visual arts (Fred Williams, John Olsen, Russell Drysdale, and the plethora of landscape painters) is somehow related to the lacking grand narrative of this culture. The basic reduction of colours, shapes and motifs, the bedrock of all aesthetic coherence, is also the bedrock of the narrative coherence of cultural identity. To describe a place ex novo is nothing less than to bring it into existence or, as Lepecki would smugly put it, we need to consider representation as an ontological force. And the complicity between landscape painting and nationalism has long been identified. Sunstruck looks very much like

Russell Drysdale: The Cricketers, 1948.

this. More importantly, though, it also looks like

Raymond Depardon: Désert du Téneré (detail), 1989.

this which, no less importantly, was used as a cover image for L'Estranger [The Outsider].

The sun was shining almost vertically onto the sand and the glare from the sea was unbearable. There was no one left on the beach. It was hard to breathe in the dry heat rising from the ground. I wasn't thinking about anything because the sun beating down on my bare head was making me feel sleepy. (…) For two hours now the day had stood still, for two hours it had been anchored in an ocean of molten metal. – Albert Camus, L'Estranger

The sun is one of the most frequent motifs in the first part of the book: the grinding sun that reduces existence to two-dimensionality. There are no fine shades, no minute complexity of detail, in front of the blinding sun. Everything is reduced to the elementary. Flat black and white – like graphic novels, a medium extremely apt to deal with basic existential questions (and interested in them). Sunstruck also looks like

Danijel Zezelj: from Stray Dogs (detail), 2004.

this, and like

Hugo Pratt: from La ballata del mare salato (detail), 1967.

this. Both of these graphic novelists, interestingly enough, are chiefly concerned with monochrome explorations of the most fundamental mechanisms of life. While in Zezelj's work the fine lace of detail dissolves into spare lush strokes of black on white whenever a larger theme is brought up, so do Pratt's characters regularly meander out of world wars and treasure hunts to walk empty beaches and have existentialist dialogues.

According to Sagi and Stein, Camus is concerned with concrete existence, which he thinks of in terms of the basic encounter with immediate experiences, exemplified by the sea and the sun – what they term 'his Mediterranean thinking'. In this sense, he continues the existentialist-phenomenological tradition of the Husserl/Kierkegaard/Hiedegger variety. Aesthetically, his writing contrasts the experience of the sea as immersion into absolute immanence to the existential alienation of the sun. In front of the blinding sun, we are reduced to our barest humanity.

Who doesn't know that heavy feeling of heat, turning life into abstract, thoughtless being?

The idea of 'Mediterranean thinking' is something that appeals to me, although I would stretch it to include hot and dry climate more broadly.In hot climate, all the questions appear more basic: all major religions have sprung up, fundamentally, in the desert, and so have philosophy and mathematics and tragedy. Pursuit of principles, so to speak. Standing in the front of the sun, one is never much more than simple geometry.

George Hoyningen-Huene: Untitled (Bathing Suits by Izod) (detail), from Vogue, July 5 1930.

A bit like the unavoidable abstraction of the beach body.

But this all came much, much later. Sunstruck was a piece of performance that blinded, cleansed; it left one feeling sated on pure ether, heart full of empty space. Discursive response was impossible for days after, the pure and amimetic unsuggestiveness of Sunstruck slowly letting the contradictory, overwhelming wealth of emotional response build into something more than speechless awe.

With nothing more than two men, dressed in black, one circle of chairs, one rotating sun, a fantastically fluid incorporation of the enormous shedspace into the relatively unspatious performance. Livia Ruzic's soundscape alone makes fifty percent of the experience. The choreography is never more than a rich hint of human existence itself, two men moving like blinded by great headlights, like on that Algiers beach, and it is no wonder they are men, and not women. Something about the lines being cleaner. The sea, I hear you smart kids wondering, is also present, if nothing in the seagull cries right before the end, the seagulls flying over the construction landscape outside our enormous shed. If we believe in Camus, and there is no reason not to, it is at this point that the absurd finality, limitedness, of bare existence makes peace with the immanent, and the two two-dimensional men merge with the world. There is, really, nothing more. Like that Japanese cottage in spring, like utsubo, a quality, greatly appreciated in buddhism, of being empty in order to contain the immense, hollow as an ability to become full. A bit like the capacity for pregnancy.

Martin probably summed it up best, saying:

It just seemed to encompass everything about men and joy and inexorable tragedy and struggle and continuation and children and inevitable loss and sadness and wisdom and compassion. It was one of the most empathetic pieces I have ever seen.

In this year's Arts Festival, with such aggressive preponderance of explanation, of persuasion, of unfulfilled promises, Sunstruck shines like a supernova, all understatement, undermovement, all viscous substance. By plunging as deep as possible into an atmosphere, a sensation, unexplained, unjustified, unconceptualised, it encompasses everything and more.

MIAF. Sunstruck: a premonition of events from memory, fantasy and the imagination. Concept collaboration: Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham. Directed by Helen Herbertson. Design and lighting by Bluebottle/Ben. Physical realisation by Helen Herbertson, Trevor Patrick and Nick Sommerville. Set realised by Alan Robertson. Soundscape by Livia Ruzic. Music by Tamil Rogeon (violin) and Tim Blake (cello). Production by Bluebottle/Frog. Shed 4, North Wharf Road, Docklands. Season ended.

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