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.