Tag Archives: middlebrow

Two Faced Review

I'm not sure about you, but I went to Two Faced Bastard expecting something very similar to what I got: something fun and by no means unwatchable, but simplistic, shallow and pseudo-cerebral, not really committed to exploring in depth the ideas (or rather idea, for there is only one) it professed to be exploring.

I only expected courage. I expected an idea taken to its logical conclusion. To me, Two Faced Bastard was an indecisive smear on a big white canvas left mostly untouched. On the dance side, I would say, my side got the full picture in the first part of the show. So much that I wondered if it hadn't been designed, misdesigned, from there. Strangely, the faint panel discussion voicing over Stephanie Lake's dancing never felt like it could stand alone as anything other than muffled background to movement. It sounded distracted, casual, glib in a swampy way, as if the panelists too were more focused on watching Stephanie: meandering in and out of listening, I never felt I was missing on much.

But there was a lot to look at on my side too, a dance of another, subtler kind. Brian Lipson is a genius when it comes to the niceties of body language, and plays himself brilliantly. He also plays extemporaneousness brilliantly, a certain this-is-happening-for-the-first-time-ness.

There was not more than a hint of extemporaneousness to the Brian Lipson I saw, although I allow I may have only seen patches of him, coming and going as he was. There was a tightly choreographed affectation of chaos, interrupting a line of tightly choreographed movement which, by not pretending to be spontaneous and free, seemed more genuine. What I enjoyed instead was the overlap of movement and non-movement, performance and not, particularly because, unlike virtually everything in Bastard, it had an effortless, surprising grace: the transition between Stephanie doing warm-ups (Stephanie the unstructured body) and performing (body as concentrated machine); and each time another performer would walk into the dance from the panel discussion – I wondered what it looked like from the panel side. This was virtually the only moment I was curious about the other side..

Alison has described the side I was on as the side of language, which I think is a little disingenuous. Sure, the cast spoke more on my side, but they also threw their bodies around a lot. Ours was the side of physical comedy. (I was reminded almost constantly of Donald O'Connor and the 'Make 'Em Laugh' sequence of Singin' in the Rain, surely the secret root of much contemporary dance, or least that strand of it which involves flopping around violently on the floor.) Maybe this is why I have been told by others who sat on your side that the laughter coming from ours made them jealous in the same way that your applause made us jealous of you. I was content on my side until then. I didn't feel like I was missing out on too much until your side applauded at the end of the first dance.

Take into account, however, that my side was silent, and yours almost perpetually noisy. Our side may have been all elusive mystique, but you were the tedious noisy neighbour. To us, it was the side of language. Certainly of noise.

The point is this: we weren't missing out for being on the so-called wrong side of the curtain. To wit: one of the most jarring moments in the first half of the production, before everyone starts changing sides, comes when two of the dancers turn Brian's long and stumbling spiel from the beginning of the piece, the one about introducing chaos into the performance, into a perfectly synchronised duet, transforming even his ums and ahs, his stutters and seemingly ad-libbed asides, into movement. And you're retrospectively thrown by how perfectly Lipson played the monologue earlier, not to mention by the precision of the duet itself.

What displeased me, though, was the clear affectation of these supposed breaks in the performance, at least on my side: dancers did not say anything meaningful, and didn't really introduce chaos into choreography either. Lipson running around and interrupting the show was a symbol of rupture, not a real one; and so was the panel discussion, and so was the call to the audience to choose sides, and so was the war that followed. It was almost a parody of theatrical deconstruction, going through the empty motion.

But while its intellectual games were simplistic – and we agree on that much at least – the production's effect on the audience was nonetheless genuine: it frustrated them. It was a show designed to frustrate, and to this extent was entirely successful. The show's title was not a title, but rather an accurate description: it was a two-faced bastard, this show, an adulterer, a backstabber. For all its unwillingness to probe its operations too deeply, it did generate a certain jealous longing for off-stage space, for the greener grass of the other side. And it did so very effectively.

I wish I had been frustrated the same way. Frustration is a beautifully genuine feeling to get in the theatre. On my side, it was all too pretty, too choreographic. Cute and totally predictable scenes on a string don't add up to a show. More often than not, the logic of the sequences was skin-deep: when Vince suddenly bursts onto our side of the curtain to long for Stephanie, it merely signals an escape from a narrative slump. When, later, Michelle dances and lip-syncs all wrapped in white paper – you wouldn't have been able to see this – Vince and Stephanie are suddenly annoyed at her presence, which is frankly inconsequential and doesn't relate to any other interaction these three characters have had – at least on my side.

But in feeling there was a certain inconsequentiality to Vince and Stephanie's annoyance, that it didn't relate to anything else you had seen, you did in fact feel some frustration in not knowing what had happened on the other side of the curtain. Frankly, I can't believe you were looking for narrative logic, and what's more don't really believe that you were.

I wasn’t looking for narrative logic; I was looking for dramaturgical logic: if you’re constantly adapting your terms of reference to the clichés of the scene, it expands neither the scene nor the whole. And the whole, on my side, the value-for-money side, so to speak, often looked like a confused blockbuster of the most extreme kind: eye candy and tokenistic humour with not much tying them together.

My side was like hanging out with the production runners on the set of a blockbuster: it was kind of fun. I had no idea there was a love story running through the piece until you told me. The only hint we got of it in the first half was when Lipson, wearing that ridiculous jacket, interrogated Vince about it. This, coincidentally, was the only section of the piece I really didn't like, this blatant incursion of narrative into the proceedings. Obviously, as we have both noted, the whole show was in its way a fiction – a symbolic or affected chaos as opposed to the real thing, a superficial exploration of bigger, harder questions – this was the only moment on my side of the curtain where narrative fiction stuck its nose in where it wasn't wanted. Maybe this is something you saw more of – you were, after all, the one who followed the love story from one side of the curtain to the other, while I followed the before-and-after-the-deluge-ness of the narrative-free backstage space. This space was fictitious too, of course – it's hardly as though the nonchalant wandering around of the performers wasn't equally as choreographed as what was happening on your side – but it wasn't a narrative fiction, and I appreciated that.

What I’m noticing is that there were obviously two very different sides to this show, but not the way we originally assumed. There was the back and the front, the honest frustration of the hungry and the more insidious frustration of gluttony.

I really wasn't that hungry backstage: there was plenty of termitic detail to fill me up. (Chris Boyd, however, appeared to be starving.) Meanwhile, it seems increasingly to me that what you were after was a happening, not a show. Is this a fair assessment? It's a similar complaint to those being made by most critics of an oak tree, who have claimed that the guests invited to take part have not been willing or able to transcend performativity. (Tim Crouch should get members of the audience to do it. Members of the audience who aren't actors.)

Funny you bring up Tim Crouch, since an oak tree had exactly the same problems that Two Faced Bastard does. Unsolicited, unneeded humour, and total transparency of method, both employed in order to make the experiment as safe as humanly possible while keeping the semblance of courage and of crossing boundaries. But, remember, Two Faced Bastard invited the audience on stage, and yet controlled the effect with an iron fist. An oak tree featured the same participation as tokenism, in which the supposed wild element cannot significantly alter any conclusion the performance strives to make – the same thing we regularly witness in your average political process.

I don't think Two Faced Bastard controlled the process. We controlled the process. You or me or anyone could have sat down in the middle of the stage – on one of the chairs even – and refused to move. That moment was about giving us a choice and none of us really chose to take it. In other words, Vince won the argument: we could have induced chaos but didn't. We have internalised the rules, not only of Two Faced Bastard, but of theatre-going etiquette more generally: the show is the boss.

I dare you to sit down in the middle of the stage next time you're invited to audience participation, and test the political permeability of the situation.

You're on.

I think every show in this country is chiefly concerned with providing closure in regards to value of the money spent. There is no brutality, no violence, in Australian theatre, lest we get another opinion piece bemoaning the extravagance with which the decadent artists spend the taxpayer’s dollars. I think it hurts everyone if we are tickled, yet treat it as a slap. It makes for a weak audience, and weak artists. It makes us sheltered, self-satisfied, and whiny. Of course people don’t know in which direction to faint first when they see a Kosky show: nobody is used to a real slap anymore. What Bastard does brilliantly, perhaps without meaning to, is lay bare this desire to get the value of our ticket price back. My side, with Lucy’s pretty dancing bodies, I would say, is where our money's worth was meant to be. Even when we changed sides, we were still hoping the money’s worth would follow us.

I'm not too surprised by all this. We're talking about Lucy and Gideon here, for whom the answer to the question of chaos is invariably to provide only an illusion or illustration of it. It is on this point, I think, that we both agree, but also where we ultimately part company. We agree that the show could have gone further, introducing a genuine level of risk for all parties concerned. I did not expect it to do so, due in large part to the team behind it, and so was not too disappointed when it didn't. I was able to take something away from it, the Farberian minutiae, the little things. You, while not seeming gutted exactly, nonetheless seem somewhat angrier.

That's because I can imagine the damage this will do to the local theatre for another twenty-four months at least, with any brave exploration flagellated, even self-flagellated, because, hey, if Chunky could do it and be so fun and accessible, why does any tall poppy need to get all aggro with the audience? This, to me, was deadly experiment, an equivalent of Brook’s deadly theatre, more insidious for pretending to be brave when, in fact, it was deadening:

The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs: usually, he has family and friends: he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him – and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities. When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason incapable of change. . .

When good actors play in bad comedies or second-rate musicals, when audiences applaud indifferent classics because they enjoy just the costumes or just the way the sets change, or just the prettiness of the leading actress there is nothing wrong. But none the less, have they noticed what is underneath the toy they are dragging on a string? It's a wheel.

But is that what we settle for? Is that what we've come to expect? Do we not, ever, demand more?

Two Faced Review. Dialogue by Matthew Clayfield (Esoteric Rabbit) and Jana Perkovic (Mono no Aware).

Melbourne International Arts Festival. Two Faced Bastard. Direction & choreography: Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin. Set design: Ralph Myers. Lighting design: Philip Lethlean. Costume design: Paula Levis. Composer: Darrin Verhagen. Performers: Vincent Crowley, Anthony Hamilton, Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Brian Lipson, Byron Petty & Lee Serle. Arts House, Meat Market. 8-12 Oct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris; with regret

La Mama and Parnassus’ Den Productions present: Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris. Written by Shaun Charles. Directed by Dave Letch. Performed by Daniel Agapiou, Melanie Berry, Cat Commander, Joshua Hewitt, Gina Morley and Gus Murray. Production designed by Christina Logan-Bell. Lighting designed by Christopher Tollefson. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton. June 4 – June 21. Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm. 2pm matinees on Saturdays June 7 & 21. Tickets: $20/$10. Bookings: 9347 6142.

A version of this review was published online on vibewire.net.

It is much harder to criticize a production built from scratch, than a flawed production of an established text: the reasons for failure are harder to pinpoint. Was it the line or the delivery, the character or the costume, the tone or the set? Moreover, is it unredeemably bland, or just short of decent?

Set during the last few days before the world's certain end, Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris follows six characters as they, rather predictably, go mad, buy drugs, look for someone to die with, see angels, betray and love and need each other. And from the first to the last moment of the play, it is standing right next to line, and refusing to cross.

The whole point of apocalypse stories is wider-scheme revenge, fuelled by our self-righteous moral high ground. We observe shallow, hollow people around us, as they follow trends, send text messages, order take-away, mull over the new mobile phone to buy, betray higher ideals, we despite this perceived lack of involvement with great ideas, with life itself. And we yearn to see them faced with questions of life and death. We want them shaken out of their tepid complacency. We want them a bit more human. We want to know what they would be like.

Tragically, I am quite positive they would behave like the characters in Rio Saki: get absorbed in petty disputes, commit small acts of civil disobedience, have hysterical fits of fear, and endlessly describe their hopes for a glorious death. Unlike in better end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories, from Solaris through Apocalypse Now or Mercury Fur, they would not do crazy and significant things that would reveal higher laws of human nature. They would stay bland, uncreative and unreflexive right until the end. But if this is a compliment, it is a rather weak one. In a good fictional end of the world, there should be absolutely disgusting human behaviour, extremely lateral emotional logic, unexpected conclusions, traumas distorting the story and memory in short circuits, cathartic regret.

Originally, I had posted a photo-moment from the play. Having been supplied with this sort of photography since, however, I have decided to use Parnassus' Den Productions' preferred publicity images instead. They explain the 'television' part better than words ever could.

Rio Saki is much too gentle on its characters, and much too easy-going with the plot, to offer catharsis. This one is a mild, suburban apocalypse. Right until the end, everyone was well-groomed, tall and slim, tidy, rather television-looking. Nobody reached the bottom. The line of quotidian, self-interested decency was never crossed. It was the apocalypse in a soapie world. And yet, at every moment I had hope: I was waiting until the very end to give it up.

Shaun Charles’s is competent writing, well-paced and measured, yet at the end one looks back and realises that it went nowhere. The Rio Saki from the title is a symbol that never quite becomes the key to the play; of the many relationships that crack at the start, not one is significantly transformed by the end, and no personal journeys are completed either; even the world ends just as predicted. Paradoxically, the chief reason for this, apart from the refusal to torture characters, seems to be the desire to end the play in a measured and balanced way, give it a sense of closure and a calm end to rest on. As a result, everyone's journey ends before any real transformation has a chance to happen.

Could this have been compensated by braver acting or directing is the last thing that bothers me. Cat Commander is fine in her (admittedly easy) role of the deranged, perpetually screaming Charlotte, and Joshua Hewitt keeps the spirits up at the other end of the play as the drug-obsessed Louis. The rest are lukewarm and more than a bit television; but then, so are their characters. The main apocalypse devices end up being the set (clever, dirty and cluttered), and the excellent soundtrack (moody and full of feelin’).

There is a strong tendency in Australian writing to stay on the surface without approaching satire, keep understated minimalism without finding profundity, and genuinely shelter characters and plot from great events. To write an apocalypse story in that spirit, frankly, may be stretching the genre a bit far.

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Ceci n’est pas une critique;

1. Scarlett O'Hara at the Crimson Parrot, new David Williamson play opening next week at the MTC, is absolutely worth walking out of in the interval. It is also more than worth walking out of during the show. It is worth the embarrassment of getting up mid-row, the awkwardness of stepping on senior citizens' feet, of disturbing the performance, of causing grunts and complaints, of stumbling out in the dark, of disdainful looks you'll attract.

2. Scarlett O'Hara plays out like a text written by a computer program: fed Australian newspapers on one given day, regurgitating the content into themes, motifs, characters, motivations, dialogue. The glitches and retakes of the preview performance were the only moments to enjoy – I pity the audience that won't have that relief – because they had soul.

3. The play could instead be called seven characters looking for authorly love. Not to mention mutual respect. As they are, abandoned on stage in a puddle of psychological dead-ends, semi-devised motivations, right turns visible miles ahead, and plotlines with validity set to expire in 2009, they come across as theatrical cripples, interesting more as a self-unaware society reflected in the broken mirror of the unconscious, regurgitating computer program mentioned above, than any attempt at lite forgivemelord comedy.

4. There are shards that one can see something in, of course: the relationship between Scarlett and her mother is such a clearly dysfunctional, de-framed, re-framed, translated and costumed relationship between a mother and a bruised, withdrawn yet raging, homicidal son. One may, you see, think a thought or two within these two hours. But is it worth the time of our senior citizens? Their money?

5. It is not mine to come up with reasons why such an embarrassment is what most ordinary people in this city seem to consider the only relevant theatre. But it breaks my heart, over and over again.

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Don Juan in Soho;

10.i.2008. Melbourne Theatre Company: Don Juan in Soho. Written By Patrick Marber. Cast includes Craig Annis, Angus Cerini, Daniel Frederiksen, Katie-Jean Harding, Bob Hornery, Kate Jenkinson, Bert Labonte, Christen O’Leary, James Saunders, Dan Wyllie. Directed By Peter Evans. Set & costume designer: Fiona Crombie. LX designer: Matt Scott. Composer: David Franzke. Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until 16 Feb 2008.

The best thing about Don Juan in Soho is that, at 90 or so minutes, it's mercifully short. (Now that wasn't a good start. But what else to say? Since I've decided to dedicate some time to proper theatre reviews, not a whole lot of decent theatre passed my door.)

It has been said that Dan Wyllie is miscast, that his DJ (as our protagonist is here known) lacks playful suaveness, that there is too much applied effort, too much struggle; this, however, implies that there is a qualitative difference between his and the remaining performances, whereas this audience member felt that the entire cast was mishandled, pushed into an effortful sort of acting. While Katie-Jean Harding as the humanitarian unbeddable wife is solely responsible for the little pathos that squeezes through, it is Daniel Frederiksen as DJ's servant Stan, the holder of the BlackBerry, who resists the collective acting catastrophe most consistently. Sganarelle is certainly the character in the Don Juan universe with greatest interest to an actor, and Frederiksen creates one that never slips into easy parody, subtly balancing out the over- and the under-stated. His almost constant presence on stage almost, but never quite, saves the production from being unwatchable. Everything around Frederiksen is a sort of half-arsed train crash. The actors run through their lines in that theatrical rush of mangled emotions, faux surprises and revelations, running from one end of the stage to another as if it has meant anything since Brecht (the acting verisimilitude of opera – but the main purpose of opera, at least, is singing). The stage design doesn't know what it is doing, and music is used to create bursts of franticness in between the already jumbled scenes. Every line is shouted, every fellatio overwinked at, every transgression transfigured into grotesque.

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The resulting play is not comical, and certainly not seducing. It is a Don Juan that handles sex with no sensuality, transgression with no flair, and hedonism with no gusto. Ultimately, we get the old MTC effect: it feels like nobody wants to be here, doing this. Not the actors, not the director, not the light technician, not even Patrick Marber himself, and least of all the audience. Nobody is enjoying themselves. (I can imagine an entire new generation of subscribers coming out of the Arts Centre with a sigh; yes, well, it's all fine, this theatre thing, but let's not do it next year.) The entire purpose of this exercise seems to be filling a gap in the relatively well-funded MTC season with yet another play that made money in London or New York. And if the play did it originally due to the qualities of the casting, direction, well, let's disregard that, because the play, we all know, is the text and can be mishandled in whichever way will make it more palatable to the imagined conservative, senior-citizen and MTC subscriber.

The result? Since text itself has little meaning without the tone of voice and the gesture (only about 5% of our communication is strictly verbal), Marber's play may have been the sexiest, most alluring ode to joie de vivre out there (although I somehow doubt it), we wouldn't know. MTC stages a moralistic story of sin and punishment, akin to those biblical tales of bad boys punished and good boys rewarded that Mark Twain wrote delicious little parodies of good 150 years ago. There is that in the DJ canon, alright, but there is more. In a storyline that everyone contributed to, absolute fidelity to a text, any text, is unnecessary. Or a political choice.

Which brings us back to Marber. Can I claim that he wanted DJ to be a spitting, shouting, deranged MTC-creature that seems to sleep with women out of drug-fuelled compulsion and/or manic depression? Perhaps. There is an element of truth in there, the play is well-documented, I know plenty of people who live such lives: in London, Rome, Zagreb, all over the US, mercifully few in Melbourne (Australia doesn't have quite the level of open debauchery, for all sorts of reasons). That the prostitutes are Russian, even, is racist but fair. But because of the way it comes across – a moralistic tale where sin is ugly and punishment just, delivered to the fancily dressed, restrained MTC auditorium where nobody ever puts a foot on a chair – it strikes me as the right-wing play par excellence.

There would be a way out. Criminology, for all its flaws, gave some psychological insight into its deviant, drug-crazy and sex-obsessed characters, as a way to connect their haphazard lives to the bigger human drama out there. As a way to say, well, alright, but it's all a part of the same game. In contrast, not an ounce of glory is left to dust sex, hedonism or transgression with after Marber and MTC have finished with it. Not an ounce.

It is useful here to import wholesale Giulia's comment on the Turner Prize, because she identifies the same cultural tendency, within the same civilisation:

And I knew that the Turner Prize reached its aim: it did for contemporary art what the Booker Prize did for the novel, turning it into the perfect mixture of good feelings and morbid curiosities, apparent rebellion towards the society but only within the safe boundaries of political correctness… giving the Guardian-readers from all over the world the possibility of feeling like they have appreciated something intellectual without the need for any actual engagement with what is in front of them: we'll tell you what's good, and we'll carefully select something that will only shock and disturb you and stimulate you in the measure in which you are already anticipating to be shocked and disturbed and stimulated.

Yet, with all due disapproval, let's give credit to those who pull it off, who trick us all, not just bore to death. The London premiere of Don Juan in Soho may have been entertaining, slick, funny, well-cast and -directed. Faced with the MTC debacle, however, had I had a choice, I would have much rather spent 90 minutes in between the two halves of Damien Hirst's cow.

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