Tag Archives: sex

Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker. Photo: Heidrun Löhr, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

BEFORE WE COMMENCE, A POLITE REMINDER ON THE NATURE OF THE REAL IN THE THEATRE. ALTHOUGH EVERY ART FORM THAT SPEAKS OF THE WORLD IS TO SOME EXTENT MADE OF THE WORLD (THE TIMBER FRAME THAT STRETCHES THE CANVAS, AND SO FORTH), IN THEATRE THE SIGN AND THE THING ARE PARTICULARLY TIGHTLY ENMESHED. WHILE THE TYPED WORD ‘CHAIR’ STANDS FOR AN ACTUAL CHAIR, IT IS PRECISELY NOT A MATERIAL CHAIR. ON STAGE, IN CONTRAST, A THING IS ALWAYS BOTH A SIGN FOR A THING, AND THE THING ITSELF: A CHAIR ON STAGE IS A CHAIR THAT STANDS FOR A CHAIR.

Faker addresses us, the audience, as an autobiographical, even confessional work, but it is impossible to discuss it as such — once it enters stage space and stage time, ‘Gideon Obarzanek’ stands for Gideon Obarzanek, performing a sitting that stands for sitting, at a desk standing for a desk. It would be dramaturgically and critically naive to review ad hominem: this review can only talk about a staged character, ‘Gideon Obarzanek,’ not the person off-stage; and about the stage letter he receives from a theatrical pupil. The question of the percentage of ‘reality’ involved is, in this case, at the very least dumb, and at the very worst unethical.

The dramatic structure has ‘Obarzanek’ alternating between two activities: first, he reads out a letter sent to him by a young dancer, clearly smitten by ‘Obarzanek,’ who initiates a collaboration, hoping that he will “bring out the fabulous” in her, and then finds herself feeling progressively more vulnerable, let down, and growing increasingly more disappointed, hostile. The voice of the letter sounds clear notes of adoration, insecurity, need to be liked and desire to please, and although it is said to belong to a woman, it could easily belong to a young man. Asked to perform something she has not done before (“this task was designed in a way that I could only fail”), her insecurity starts coalescing into a perception of betrayal: “I stood there, humiliated.”

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

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

Jane Marion Griffiths. Photo credits: Jeff Busby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let me finish the sentence…

Excellent article (book excerpt, more precisely in The Age today about unconscious sexism. It compares the cases of two Stanford biologists, both tenured professors, both transgender, and both have undergone sex change late in life:

“Ben once gave a presentation at the prestigious Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friend relayed a comment made by someone in the audience who didn’t know Ben Barres and Barbara Barres were the same person: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Ben also noticed he was treated differently in the everyday world. “When I go into stores, I notice I am much more likely to be attended to. They come up to me and say, ‘Yes, sir? Can I help you, sir?’ I have had the thought a million times, I am taken more seriously.”

Before sex change, Joan Roughgarden’s research career was based around exploring radical ideas in biology. But, when the now-female researcher suggested that Charles Darwin’s theory of competition between the sexes was wrong:

THE scientific establishment, Joan said, was livid. But in contrast to the response to her earlier theory about tide pools and marine animals, few scientists engaged with her. At a workshop at Loyola University, a scientist “lost it” and started screaming at her for being irresponsible. “I had never had experiences of anyone trying to coerce me in this physically intimidating way,” she said, as she compared the reactions to her work before and after she became a woman. “You really think this guy is really going to come over and hit you.”


Joan is willing to acknowledge her theory might be wrong; that, after all, is the nature of science. But what she wants is to be proven wrong, rather than dismissed. Making bold and counter-intuitive assertions is precisely the way science progresses. Many bold ideas are wrong, but if there isn’t a regular supply of them and if they are not debated seriously, there is no progress. After her transition, Joan said she no longer feels she has “the right to be wrong”.

Where she used to be a member of Stanford University’s senate, Joan is no longer on any university or departmental committee. Where she was once able to access internal university funds for research, she said she finds it all but impossible to do so now. Before her transition, she enjoyed an above-average salary at Stanford. But since her transition, “My own salary has drifted down to the bottom 10 per cent of full professors in the School of Humanities and Sciences, even though my research and students are among the best of my career and are having international impact, albeit often controversial.”

Well worth a read. The comments, of course, are too.

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The Masque of the Red Death

Not entirely successful, The Masque of the Red Death stands unsure between presentation and representation, self-awareness and not, always doing things a tad bit too literally. Its starting and ending point is Edgar Allan Poe's short story of one continuous party, closed off from the society ravaged by plague. This is a powerful trope, used since Boccaccio, at the bottom of it our unease about antisocial activities of all kinds, a desire to punish the autonomous outcasts, the death wish behind certain forms of transgressive hedonism; and then the tantalising image of total social breakdown. It is so simple, so resonant, that anything could have been made out of it. Instead, this production doesn't move further than square two. The program notes give it all away: “Daniel Schlusser […] told me about a task he had once set a group of actors: create the last piece of theatre allowed by a government before theatre is entirely banned in the land.” From here to pre-plague hedonism, and from Poe to the free-rolling funfair of a performance, are two very small steps.

The other problem is that Masque swings between describing the last party, and being the party, backing-and-forthing in its interaction with the audience in a way that ultimately isn't very thought-through. The dramatic structure is upheld by the narrative frame of the story, used to insert a range of Poe's writing, most of it in a purely declamatory fashion. The representational middle, a series of one- or two-person acts, draws on the vaudeville more than it tries to explore this imaginary aristocratic party, which in itself would not be a sin had the visual and spiritual clichés of vaudeville not been endlessly over-exploited on every kind of Melbourne stage already. Although the performer-spectator relationship is explored in all sorts of ways: performers sitting in the stalls, the audience sitting on stage, both dispersing into small groups and withdrawing into little rooms; it never feels like there is any higher purpose to these explorations of form than to try another trick. In the end, the two parts are collated quite safely, and our palates should be predictably satisfied: mindless amusement boxed into a safe experience, book-ended by some sense of purpose, explanation.

In certain moments, I had real hope that the performance was leading somewhere other than to the anticipated punishment of privileged antisociability. There appeared to be a slow build-up of acts, performed apparently for us, of greater and more intense transgression: from the bizarre, complexly disturbing image of a girl squatting on a skateboard, to the deliciously trash version of Raven as smut, to the full frontal nudity of a cross-dressing madame Butterfly. And yet, despite these upswings of visual creativity, most of the imagery was intellectually shallow, not doing much more than presenting commonplaces: violence on semi-naked women, glittery cross-dressing, unneeded accents. It was also visually misconceived: with gypsy fortune tellers, clowns and dancers, it was more of a romanticized village fair than the last supper of the medieval condemned. Which, again, would not be a sin had it not been the thousandth time this decade that a faux-Slavic accent was donned by a gypsy fortune teller on Melbourne stage.

The performances are passionate across the board, with each performer given a moment of one-act glory, and this ultimately makes The Masque of the Red Death a rather enjoyable experience. Much more enjoyable to witness, I may add, than think about later. However, perhaps due to the looseness of the direction, one never forgets that one is watching a student production, in serious discrepancy with last year's VCA shows, one of which, YES, could later easily get re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs.

I like tropes, I like clichés, I like common places. I believe in the power of fairy tales, of myths, of rituals. There is intrigue in the commonality of the simple ideas that order human existence across time and space. I would like to see them explored in ways more intelligent that simple declamation of poetry masquerading as provocation.

The Masque of the Red Death. Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by John Bolton. Music: Jo Laing. Set design: Jeminah Reidy. Costumes: Jane Noonan. Lighting design: Kimberly Kwa. Sound design: Timothy Bright. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance. Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, 29 Oct – 7 Nov.

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Venus in Furs;

It's been recently asked, why are 19th-century pieces re-worked, dissected and performed all over Melbourne these days?, and I can only quote in response that 19th century art was

paintings in a succession of new styles, which saw the world in different ways, and a flood tide of novels and poetry depicting the struggles of modern men and women in their search for identity, love and meaning – from Madame Bovary to J. Alfred Pruftock, Lady Chatterley and Dean Moriarty. (Richard Florida, of all people!)

19th century was the beginning of modernism, and of doubts. Whereas 18th century reads like a collection of pamphlets (and I say again: de Sade first among equals), everyone was so positivist and certain, 19th century was the beginning of that earnest, modernist, search for answers. To the extent that very often it doesn't matter what the author's personal conclusion was: the journey remains fresh and untainted by answers. That Ana Karenjina was composed as Tolstoj's manifesto for humble marital collaboration, that Ana's character was conceived as the accusatory portrait of a person of weak morals, does not mean much today, and certainly does not cloud the extraordinarily sympathetic depiction of a woman looking for meaning of life, as things were, in romance.

Neal Harvey's triumphal adaptation of what could have been a very daggy little relict of someone else's erotica completely understands this point: Venus in Furs, currently playing at Theatreworks, steps carefully around sex and fetish, to outline this search for the best way to love and be in love. We are as concerned with the ways we relate to people now as we were in 1800s, and this play speaks of and to our time.

My review of Venus in Furs is now available online at vibewire.net. It tries to talk with the play, rather than of the play, which is always what I'm looking to find in a review.

Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Dates: 2-18 May
Times: Tues – Sat @ 8.00pm; Sun @ 6.00pm
Tickets: Adults $25, Concession $20
Bookings: (03) 9534 3388, www.theatreworks.org.au

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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.

don_rev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

antechamber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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