Tag Archives: Sydney Theatre Company

The Critic #03

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This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading “The Critic #03” »

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Ah, but anyone can shit on a play…

January/February are somewhat dead theatre time in Victoria, I’ve been plenty busy with other art forms, and I find Twitter a little distressing, so I had missed the fact of a new (beautifully designed) Australian general-interest publication, The Global Mail, having an inaugural arts feature pertaining to theatre bloggers.

Or rather, using theatre blogging as a pretext to profile one Jane Simmons, who voiced her opinions on theatre (anonymously until The Global Mail report) on a blog titled, indicatively, Shit On Your Play.

Carl Nilsson Polias alerted me to the fact that I was name-checked in the article, and I read with great interest the profile, the quotes from Ms Simmons’ blog, and then the blog itself. And I suppose what I read made me want to respond.

It is unusual for the Australian press to report positively on blogs – theatre blogs in particular; despite the global opinion generally being positive (what with The Guardian jumping on board with their Theatre Blog years ago, and the emergence of authoritative sources of theatre criticism such as Nachtkritik.de), Australian media are still presenting them roughly with a combination of bored yawn (‘oh dear, everyone is a critic now’) and outright hostility towards the un-edited, un-professional, un-paid criticism uncloaked in the authority of a general-interest publication. The exception to that, of course, have been the many (many, many) articles published by Alison Croggon (of the widely read Theatre Notes, for my overseas readers), articulating the relative strengths of theatre blogs, and the hole they plug in the relatively poor coverage in the mainstream media.

For those reasons, it was interesting to read The Global Mail article, which was a rare case of a non-hostile write-up. But. Oh but. To start, it is simply incorrect to present Jane Simmons as model blogger (as Alison C notes in her response to the article:

blogging is much more interesting, diverse, porous (and long-lived) than is represented here. […] It seems like an enormous missed opportunity to explore the pros and cons, the challenges and problems, of current blogging and critical culture.

But Jane Simmons’ is such a singularly poor model of theatre blogging that profiling Shit On Your Play (in eerily positive terms) is an enormous disservice to everyone: Simmons herself, theatre blogging, Australian theatre, Australian media, the uncritical Stephen Crittenden, and The Global Mail itself.

At least two bloggers have already and publically taken offence at being packed into the same basket: Alison C and Augusta Supple, who wrote in her blog:

I’m not going to shit on anyone or their play or their blog. I don’t think that’s cool. I don’t think that’s useful. But I will ask those who delight in the style of writing that empowers the anonymous and aggressive – if this is the tone and style of the artistic conversations we should be having? Is this the best we can do for each other?

What to say about Jane Simmons, except that she has basically been a troll with a blog? She has been known for writing in the style of the following (her review of the Malthouse/STC co-production of Baal:

Stone calls this play a tragedy- “by presenting humanity in extremis, tragedy shows us the extents of our psychological potential…Baal is the nightmare catharsis of the anti-social instinct”. Ah…sorry, what was that? Do you mean, by presenting as many cocks, cans, titties and a man in women’s undies, we will expose the deepest darkest parts of ourselves and show the world how terrible to succumb to this extreme? I struggled to think the cast cared, let alone me. I left the theatre more concerned about what to have for dinner than what message the play might have tried to imbibe.

Or, from her review of STC’s production of Gross und Klein:

German surrealist literature….well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective. By the end not even the enticement of hearing the actors Q & A or catching another glimpse of Kevin Spacey in the audience was enough to make me want to stay.

There is so little in this kind of review that could be of any value to anyone: to the audience, to the artist, to the production company, to the reader. It is largely opinion without analysis, plus critique ad personam, often amounting to the following argumentative logic: ‘this play sucked because the director is stupid, and so 5 minutes in I wanted to go home and do my laundry instead‘.

There is no analysis of what went wrong or how – no real meat to her argument, anything to debate with, anything to use as development of one’s own experience of the work, very little new information about what the work could or should have been. Compare Augusta’s review of Baal:

The adaption itself seemed to be obsessed with the sound of the language – declamatory and forced and overt – and therefore clumsy. The delivery seemed equally as staccato, stylized and forced. I found the style itself alienating (harking back to Brecht’s ideas within Epic Theatre – which is interesting since I don’t think he’d yet developed that idea when he wrote BAAL – so to overlay that directorial style on this texts seems somewhat anachronistic). I found the characters to be utterly basic and one dimensional – with little to no sub-textual level and therefore without any major transformation or change. And I wasn’t sure what I was being asked to feel. Was I to feel sorry for Baal? Or his friends? Or the women? I felt was disconnected from them all. I also felt like it was all a fore-gone conclusion. They brought about their own demise – but did I care? Nope.

And so I asked myself, “why don’t I care?”

Is this an example of my own numbness? Perhaps. But I guess it came back to the fact that I feel like that world – where desire is soley manifested in the act of sex, and sex is confused for love, and stimulation is synthetic and drug-induced – is so far away from my life, reality/experience that I had no connection to it; at all. I watch on as the embarrassing pink-fleshed animals of my species destroy each other and I think – well… I’ve learnt nothing – this is what I assumed of this world and it follows what I believe – ego is ugly, fame is fickle, fame creates a false sense of power, entitlement and immortality, having no values hurts. So I was vindicated, but not transformed.

Or, say, my own:

Stone has made his name by essentially re-writing, then directing, the works of that same previous generation – and the generation Brecht was particularly defining himself in opposition to. […] And Stone has directed them aptly Bergmanesquely: in chiaroscuro, with long shadows, carving hints and glimpses of universal significance out of meticulous portrayal of the mundane. […]

Whereas a scene from Ibsen is a meticulous moment of mundane, through which one may glimpse a universal significance, Brecht’s writing is blunt, sketchy, showing only the essential point of the scene. The role of the spectator is then to relate this sketch to an everyday moment, to anchor it in reality (in this aspect Brecht’s writing functions as satire).

So. Ibsen: particular hinting at the universal. Brecht: universal hinting at the particular.

I don’t think it’s easier to direct the former than the latter kind, but much of this production nonetheless looked like Stone wasn’t sure what particular he was hinting at.

Jane Simmons and The Global Mail make a big deal out of other critics being overly supportive of bad theatre, but I think this is a claim incorrectly made on purpose, to mask the lack of substance of Jane Simmons’ reviews. Many of us didn’t like Baal. Most of us went through the effort of analysing why, what went wrong. That is hard work, harder, in any case, than sniping at male nudity and shrugging the whole enterprise off. What Jane Simmons tells you, in most cases, is that she liked or didn’t like a play; or that it worked or didn’t. That’s all you get: an appraisal, a vote. The review could have been replaced with a number: 4/10, sit down.

A commenter on Theatre Notes related that to Simmons’ role as drama teacher:

It seems to me that Jane speaks like many a drama teacher in her sharp criticisms. Anyone who has been in an acting school or class has probably been told that what they’re doing is shit at one point or another. I’ve read articles about awesome actors who came in for heavy criticism from their teachers at drama school, so it’s no surprise that this particular drama teacher has a ready supply of caustic things to say, it’s just that she’s now giving the drama teacher treatment to everyone, not just her students.

But, again – I have myself participated in numerous crits, on both sides. Only a bad crit is about character assassination. The purpose of the crit is to interrogate the artist (budding) on the intentions and goals of their work, their method and process, and then judge the work on having or not achieved those goals – and do it in a way that can send the (budding) artist off with a plan to fix the flaws. (See wonderful American reality TV series Work of Art for a much better example of what a crit consists of.) To disagree with the artist’s entire premise, aesthetics and goals is not what you are there for; you are there to be a sort of art doctor.

The non-constructive review has its place in this world, too. Every so often one sees a performance whose flaws would take too long to list – here we have the hatchet job, as exemplified by Dale Peck in literary criticism. However, if it not going to be a constructive lament of sorts, if it is going to be heartless, a negative review must, at the very least, be a good read.

Compare any of the above Simmons to Kenneth Tynan lamenting (completely unconstructively) the dearth of commercially successful theatre in England (The Lost Art of Bad Drama, 1955):

One begins to suspect that the English have lost the art of writing a bad successful play. Perhaps some sort of competition should be organized: the rules, after all, are simple enough. At no point may the plot or characters make more than superficial contact with reality. Characters earning less than £1,000 a year should be restricted to small parts or exaggerated into types so patently farcical that no member of the audience could possibly identify himself with such absurd esurience… Irony is confined to having an irate male character shout: ‘I am perfectly calm!’… Apart from hysterical adolescents, nobody may weep; apart from triumphant protagonists, nobody may laugh; anyone, needless to say, may smile…. Women who help themselves unasked to cigarettes must be either frantic careerists or lustful opportunists. The latter should declare themselves by running the palm of one hand up their victim’s lapel and saying, when it reaches the neck: ‘Let’s face it, Arthur, you’re not exactly indifferent to me.’

Or, say, David Foster Wallace’s merciless review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time:

It is, of the total 25 Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.

I’m afraid the preceding sentence is this review’s upshot, and most of the balance here will consist of presenting evidence/ justification for such a disrespectful assessment. First, though, if I may poke the critical head into the frame for just one moment, I’d like to offer assurances that your reviewer is not one of these spleen-venting, spittle-spattering Updike-haters one encounters among literary readers under 40. The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans . […]

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar [Great Male Narcissists]. But it’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason-mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”

These reviews make editors money and increase literacy rates across countries because they are fun to read, witty, well-observed and still informative, not merely because spleens are vented. When spleens are merely vented, it is called ‘ranting’. And when they are vented anonymously, as is Shit On Your Play, without even presenting a coherent on-line identity, then we call it ‘trolling’.

Writing witty unfriendly things about John Updike’s latest novel, or Simon Stone’s direction of Baal, and signing it with one’s own name and surname, carries the risk that the same John Updike or Simon Stone might bump into you at a magazine office, theatre foyer, dinner party, or on the street, and want to discuss your work the way you discussed theirs. This is not pleasant, hey – which is why using one’s name and surname is the best and quickest way to get a critic to build sound and researched arguments.

Jane Simmons’ reviews often conceal, rather than articulate, her knowledge of drama – her discussion of Brecht in the review of Baal makes sense to me, but would not inform anyone else. Her own taste constantly gets in the way of good analysis: she dismisses the entire German dramatic practice (its writing, its direction, and its dramaturgy) without batting an eyelid. Her critical manner is appalling, and I would be worried if she extended it to her teaching practice.

Finally, her snide and anonymous comments, devoid of articulated argument or charm, are quite the opposite of unusual: the theatrical social world of every country I know is lubricated with unfounded, slight, ad hominem, often vicious, informal and unsigned commentary behind people’s backs.

This approach is basically anti-intellectual: it amounts to yelling at people who disagree with you, and attempts to disqualify them from the argument, rather than arguing anything out. It turns everything personal too soon. It shuts debate, rather than feeding it. It makes participants give up, and either ignore a discussion held at such low level, or attempt to be bland and even-sided to the point of terrible boredom, just to bring the discussion back on some civilised track. It is completely and typically Australian in all of these aspects.

It is so tiring to see an Australian general-interest magazine focus on the arts, once again, only to construe a mini-culture war: overly polite, inner-city, Europhiliac, bleeding-heart critics and theatre establishment versus rugged individualists and suburban working families, with their no-bullshit, tell-it-how-it-is attitude. It does not need to be like this. I have just returned from Hobart, a small city which has embraced its temple to avant-garde art, MONA, with unreserved curiosity and delight. MONA, in turn, has embraced its locale to an astonishing degree. Being there, watching children wander through MONA, and having the local hair-dresser eager to discuss the influence of religious ethos on Wim Delvoye, felt very much like being in Europe, a place similarly relaxed about the role of art in everyday life.

But alliance-building takes time, and a certain astuteness, in a country ravaged by culture wars, and I don’t see J.S. exactly leading the way. The only people who will really enjoy J.S.’s dismissive reviews are those who either cannot get to the reviewed shows (either because of geography or finances) and want to feel they are not missing anything, those who have made a conscious decision not to go and want their views validated, and those for whom theatre-in-Australia is something to opt out of as an act of identity definition. (Look at the comments.) It will not foster an audience, the way I started going to theatre in Melbourne only once I felt I could trust Theatre Notes to guide me. It will not foster a discussion, not beyond the outraged blip that is has caused already. Now that J.S. has been named and profiled, her reviews might acquire a degree of accountability, and she might grow into a constructive force yet. But, as of today, nothing constructive has yet come out of her shitting on people’s plays.

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Show Ponies for a Young Nation

Show Ponies For A Young Nation

By Jana Perkovic

There’s a thriving, internationally recognised performance scene in Australia — but it’s barely reflected in the programming of major arts companies, writes Jana Perkovic

Beneath the surface of Australian cities bubbles an undercurrent of performance. Artists — both young and old, trained and untrained — are creating small interventions of chaos and beauty, much of which draws on specific local traditions of vernacular theatre: travelling circus, pub music, guerrilla performance, mixed-media cabaret.

It’s easy to dismiss these forms as niche pursuits; and they are, indeed, an ecosystem of small communities. When this year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival organised a perplexingly dull launch for McSweeney’s, one of the world’s most innovative young literary journals, it was the Suitcase Royale, a local performance collective, who saved the event with an electrifying gig/stand-up/performance.

If our literature has forgotten joie de vivre, and our cinema is proclaimed “recovered” on the basis of seven good films a year, then theatre certainly ought to be recognised as one thing Australia consistently does well.

Overseas, reviewers rave about Acrobat, Back to Back, Panther and Chunky Move: circus, physical theatre, interactive performance companies producing cutting-edge work in their select fields. They don’t pay so much attention to the companies that swallow the lion’s share of our arts funding: our state theatres.

With the honourable exception of Melbourne’s Malthouse, our major performing arts companies have persistently avoided this undercurrent, opting for programming that lacks flair. Even allowing that 2009 was a panicky year for the mainstream — the Global Financial Crisis bit into both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship — the year’s programs were altogether business-as-usual. Fifty years after Merce Cunningham choreographed to chance music and Beckett put nothingness itself on stage, our theatres still offer a bewilderingly old-fashioned mix of European classics, last year’s Broadway and West End successes, and a smattering of local plays with music (the latter to be distinguished from musical theatre by virtue of being unfunny).

Scavenging through Australia’s main stage offerings in 2003, German journalist Anke Schaefer noted that “every expectation of a German audience of 100 years ago would have been well served by these productions.” The problem is not just that our mainstream theatre is overwhelmingly male-dominated and almost completely white. And it’s not that staging a play written in 1960 is still considered adventurous — it is the abyss between what the bulk of “performing artists” in this country are doing and the work showcased on the well-funded stages.

To be fair, there have been some improvements over the past few years. The Lawler Studio is a not-yet-properly-funded baby stage for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) with a small, but promising season, and the Sydney Theatre Company’s maturing Next Stage program brought in Perth wunderkind Matthew Lutton — and will present the abovementioned Suitcase Royale in 2010. But for every innovation that reaches a big audience, there is a scathing critical attack from the likes of Peter Craven that we need better-made plays, not avant-garde tinkering.

Craven typifies the deep conservative current in our theatre commentariat. While aficionados have organised themselves in the blogosphere, forming a reliable network of guerrilla arts reportage, the mainstream patron is limited to the opinions of the mainstream press, which consistently criticises any departure from pleasant digestive after-dinner theatrical fare.

The understanding that permeates theatre criticism, funding policies, festival curatorship, even the design of performing arts venues, is that theatre is an expensive toy to show off to our international visitors. It helps prove that here, at the arse end of the world, we have a functioning high culture. Arguably, we build “world-class” arts centres, fund show-pony opera and invest in international arts festivals because we fear being mistaken for a subcultural backwater. A national ballet ensemble — like a broadcasting network, a flag, an army and a giant ferris wheel — is a sign of a serious nation.

Hence the currency of theatre as an impossibly highbrow endeavour, something that excludes large swathes of the population who claim not to attend for the pricey “elitism” of arts events. Yet, when we leave the realm of the ethereal and the literary, of The Nutcracker and King Lear, it is often hard to distinguish performing arts from fairgrounds and other dubious entertainments.

Our mainstream arts funding reflects this confusion. Theatre is sometimes a flagship investment, and sometimes a failing commercial sector in need of subsidy. If we give it money, it better demonstrates its market relevance. Most of our state festivals were set up as tourism initiatives, providing world-class this and gold star that — but they are also judged on the extent to which they animate the city.

State companies are thus in a double bind: they ought to stage excellent interpretations of classics, but they also need to keep their subscriber base with populist programming. The media and the funding bodies do not question populism. Here the Peter Cravens, Andrew Bolts and Paul Keatings of the nation join voices to demand in unison that we fund some quality orchestras before sponsoring avant-garde wank.

So, while Opera Australia can cross-fund its season with My Fair Lady without reprimand, Kristy Edmunds’s edgy curatorship of Melbourne Festival was viciously attacked as — you guessed it — “elitist”: insular, pretentious, niche. But young audiences responded and artists found her choices inspiring.

This year, under Brett Sheehy’s artistic direction, the Melbourne International Arts Festival (MIAF) broke box office records — mainly due to the sell-out performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra — and gleaned glowing praise for restoring mainstream common sense to the program. Yet the local theatre community has criticised it as too white, too European, too predictable, focusing on big-ticket events at the expense of smaller, braver shows, and — yes — “elitist”. In this equation, elites, like hell, are always other people.

It is a scavenger hunt for audiences. Where the audience preferences lie is not so clear. The MTC may have the largest subscriber base in the country but it is rapidly aging. Programming for the middle-class, middle-suburb punter may rely on unwise mathematics: audiences are not developed through insistence on a 19th-century understanding of highbrow. For all its success at the box office, often I felt off attending MIAF 09 performances surrounded by an audience thrice my age.

Melbourne Fringe featured no Philharmonic and managed to break its box office record in 2009 — despite the GFC — showing how robust specialised audience loyalty can be. TINA and Imperial Panda, independent arts festivals in NSW, have also done well, as has the inaugural Dance Massive, dedicated exclusively to contemporary dance. Perhaps mainstream programming should acknowledge these “passionate communities” and “creative laboratories” that make up the solid core of the arts audience: they, after all, nurture its most vibrant new developments. Even fans of well-made plays, we should recognise, are increasingly becoming a niche.

Rather than trying to stretch nation-making dinosaurs over an increasingly diverse nation, we should focus on nurturing smaller, specialised festivals, and recognise that our cultural excellence may lie not in opera but in grungy circus. Our current funding model is completely unsuitable for this task. Audiences will not develop through programming that blends the safest aspects of all our arts into a soup that, in attempting to please everyone, pleases no one. What we should do, instead, is encourage the continuing exploration of the many vibrant art forms thriving under the radar: they count as culture. And statehood? Aren’t we too old to worry about that?

Originally published on 31 December 2009, on NewMatilda.com

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STC: Elling & Belvoir: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

I am about to burn all my bridges and praise theatre I have never praised before. But we all grow older and up. Two shows currently playing in Sydney are exemplary for what Sydney likes to do: straight plays, if not television. Things that, we smirk from Melbourne, are not quite theatre.

Indeed, both are adaptations of dubious philosophy. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, at Belvoir Downstairs, is Robert Couch’s adaptation of the 1865 short novel of the same title by Nikolai Leskov. The transposition, in this case, is informed by the existence of no less than three film versions, numerous other stage adaptations, and at least one famous opera (by Shostakovich, recently revived by Opera Australia). Elling, at Sydney Theatre Company, is based on a 2001 Norwegian film (!), itself an adaptation of Ingvar Ambjrnsen’s novel. Pamela Rabe is directing a stage adaptation, originally by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Nss, then translated into English by Nicholas Norris and further adapted by Simon Bent (why, it makes you wonder, must the English add another layer of pruning to translated texts?). Suspicious pursuits!

It was already Goethe who complained that, as soon as they read the book, the audience of then wanted to see the play: the transposition of story across mediums, that completely failed to notice that medium was, even then, the message. (Without launching into a rant, that the narrative of Don Quixote was undivorceable from the novel-ness of Don Quixote; that one cannot turn Bukowski’s poetry into a play – although the additional question in this case is: why bother?) In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag raves against the sanctity of content:

…which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.

I am a habitual Sontag-disciple in this matter; I believe that the theatre must be theatre first, and say something later. Yet both of these productions, these theatrical mongrels, are terrific, and absolutely worth seeing – something akin to Humphrey Bower and Jess Ipkendanz’s The Kreutzer Sonata at La Mama in 2007, a re-working of Tolstoy’s short story for one voice and two instruments. An adaptation that ought to have miserably failed was instead an astonishing artistic success, one of the finest experiences I have ever had in the theatre.

I am not sure how the formalist in me justifies the tremendous enjoyment to be derived from both Lady Macbeth and Elling, but I suspect it has something to do with story. None of the two are flawless works, but you forgive them even if you notice, because you’re taken along with the narrative. The limitations of the stage, unaddressed as they may be, become invisible as the stage itself vanishes behind the story.

Psychology has made a claim that we human beings love stories because story is the fundamental organisational element of our consciousness. In simple words, we make sense of the world by telling stories to ourselves (and, indeed, the fundamental product of schizophrenia is the inability to construct a coherent narrative of one’s own life). Some artistic forms are better suited to this task, called epic for this very reason: novels, short stories, epic poems. Some not so much: painting, haiku, tragedy. However, human mind is wired to look for a narrative even in the least likely places; and it is comical but not entirely wrong that many works of art are seen to fail when they provide too strong a narrative framework for the viewer, offer too little resistance to the story-telling mind (Jack Vettriano’s painting; pre-Raphaelite didacticism; Bukowski’s poetry; Hollywood movies; the realistic novel – depending on your elitism of choice). In this duel of the urge to narrate with the fickle narcissism of form, victories are sometimes unpredictable. While Aristotle clearly separated dramatic from epic arts, suggesting that theatre is inherently flawed as a story-telling vehicle (and I second that, except in the case of radio play), Brecht has revolutionised theatre by disagreeing. Not too long after, a generation of writers proved that the novel could well exist without telling a story at all.

To return to the matter at hand: the qualities of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk lie in Joseph Couch’s excellent direction of the narrative material. Robert Couch’s adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s slim novel is pruned and stream-lined into a tight, breathless ride through the 19th-century Russia. It is as simple a story as they get: Katerina, an abused country wife, a childless slave in her own house, is seduced by a labourer. A woman who was, until then, resigned to a life of complete misery, she latches onto this unexpected source of bliss, and serially murders her way into freedom, trying to keep this love in her life.

It is interesting to find a character of this sort in the intersection of the work of three men: the novelist, the adaptator, the director. (Joe Couch notes: it is as if Leskov stumbled upon her heroine subconsciously, never understanding her motives.) This production, however, is singularly compassionate, and explores her amour fou with an essayistic clarity of thought. Without a single superfluous line or gesture, Couch builds a picture of Katerina, clutching onto a love affair that has become the sole source of meaning in her life. The macabre second act, in which her lover turns against her, is a tight and astute image of attraction turned rage, devotion turned self-annihilation, and joie de vivre turned madness.

Edwina Ritchard, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley’s many secondary characters build a varied, rich world around the two main characters in the tiny Downstairs space. For once, Russians are not played as English people: all characters possess a rounded, fully-fleshed emotional life. Kersey’s Aksinya is not a cockney maid we have come to expect from less culturally literate productions, but a brisk, yet compassionate, peasant woman. Alice Parkinson is extraordinary as a woman whom life has treated so badly as to reduce her to an animal presence, bare life on stage. She shivers and mutters, groans and sings and dances; yet she is not a caricature, but a tragic character whose actions, however extreme, are always understandable.

What could very easily have been a tedious night out is instead a riveting experience. The theatrical perils are enormous: the entire second act tries to enact a long march across Russia on the minuscule Downstairs stage. In the easy-going, frivolous Australia, the entire point could have been so easily misunderstood. Yet the emotional intelligence of the production completely overcomes the technical obstacles, delivering a gripping, utterly absorbing tale.

Darren Gilshenan & Lachy Hulme in Elling. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

The story with Elling is slightly different. A Norwegian comedy instead of a Russian tragedy. Another worrying adaptation trajectory, yet another success of theatre as straight-forward story-telling. Played by the exquisite Darren Gilshenan and Lachy Hulme, Elling and Kjell Bjorne are two lunatics given a council flat, a chain-smoking social worker, and a couple of months in the real world after a lifetime of confinement. If they screw badly enough, Frank will be only too glad to return them to the mental asylum.

The humour that Elling weaves out of this initial situation is as deliciously Scandinavian as it is un-Australian – which is also what makes its final triumph more interesting. The first thing to keep in mind is that the two characters are genuine, bona fide crazies. Kjell Bjarne is a 40-year-old virgin, constantly masturbating and without a clue about the world outside psychiatric institutions. Elling is a well-spoken agoraphobe who conflates his mother with Virgin Mary, possesses a baroque and complex sense of guilt for having outlived her (unlike Christ), and manages to regularly convince the infinitely more low-brow Kjell in the normality of his particular worldview. Reidun, the pregnant check-out chick from the apartment upstairs who becomes Kjell’s romantic dalliance, and the seedy poet Alfons, who befriends Elling out of aesthetic interest in the mind of a madman, are no more conventional human beings, and certainly not immediately likeable.

In front of the comedy of manners that ensues, Sydney audience looked genuinely confused: reluctant to laugh at insanity, at the intellectual and emotional underdevelopment of a pregnant working-class girl, even at the ruined career of a once-famous poet. The stakes are too high, firstly, and secondly, there is never anyone to laugh with. Indeed, in the entire first act, the only scenes that properly elicited laughter were those in which someone was clearly upholding normality (such as when frustrated Frank forces Elling to overcome his phobia and answer the phone).

Keeping in mind our quest for the coordinates of Australian humour – which is, sadly, looking more and more like textbook bully humour – another rule seems to assert itself: Australian humour shies away from the strange-without-resolution, otherwise known as farcical. Scandinavian humour, like in Elling, thrives on unconventional relationships (compare and contrast Kitchen Stories, exempli gratia), which deepen and grow without either of the characters capitulating in front of the differing opinions or behaviour of the other. Looking at the Sydney audience, trying to put my finger on why their engagement with the comedy was failing, the missing link seemed to be, I am sad to report, acceptance. Not tolerance – one tolerates a rash, tolerance is the ability to ignore, and a person on stage is not there to be tolerated – but acceptance of the unreconcilable difference. The audience seemed unable to get their heads around the fact that Elling was not going to be ridiculed out of his agoraphobia, nor Kjell Bjarne shamed out of public masturbation.

By the second act, however, all was resolved. The laughing curve, which dragged on the floor for most of act one, shot up immediately after the interval, and the play ended as an unqualified success. Yet there is no qualitative difference in the execution between the two acts, nor is the second half any more conventional. Quite the opposite: Elling runs off with an evil plot to become a famous poet by planting poems in sauerkraut packets, all whilst jealously plotting to keep their pregnant neighbour away from Kjell. Yet, it seems, by now the audience has thawed towards these mad people. The climax – in which Reidun goes into labour after a night of drinking and smoking, Frank assures them that a night of drunken debauchery is the normal way to celebrate childbirth, and Alfons opts for friendship at the expense of his writerly fame – is emotionally satisfying without being facile.

Again, Gilshenan and Hulme are supported by terrific supporting performances. Yael Stone, in particular, gives great richness to the range of women Elling and Kjell encounter. Directed confidently, but without frills, Elling is a terrific theatre experience. Just like with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the focus is solely on telling a story. Neither of the two productions does anything to make a case for theatre as something distinct from prose or television. Yet they both confidently assert, in these often narrative-dislexic times, the timeless importance of some plot and characters.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Written by Robert Couch. Adapted from the novella by Nikolai Leskov. Directed by Joseph Couch. With Alice Parkinson, Conrad Coleby, Don Reid, Edwina Ritchard, Celeste Dodwell, Amy Kersey and Jason Langley. Belvoir Downstairs, July 2 – 26.

Elling. Based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. Stage adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. Translated by Nicholas Norris. Adapted by Simon Bent. Director Pamela Rabe. Set Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Sound Designer Max Lyandvert. With Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Lachy Hulme, Yael Stone, Frank Whitten. Sydney Theatre Company, May 30 – July 18.

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RW: The City

There was every reason to believe that the STC production of Martin Crimp’s The City would be one of the events of the year. Crimp is one of the best currently active English-language dramatists, whose collaboration with director Katie Mitchell has seen his reputation steadily grow over the past 10 or so years. His writing is sharp, chiselled, musical and nuanced both emotionally and linguistically: Crimp is a trained musician and a French translator, and has a fantastic ear for phrase. In the tradition of Beckett and Pinter, his is dramaturgy of undefined anxiety, wrong emotions on stage (while the right ones are always round the corner), of language as a clutter of knives, rather than a bridge between souls.

War of the Roses at the Sydney Festival in January, the paramount theatrical event of 2009, sparked extraordinary interest in Benedict Andrews’s work. A director dividing his time between STC and the Berlin Schaubühne, Andrews seems to be able to translate the Germanic theatrical tradition (intellectual, formally explosive and rigorously political) into a form that fits organically into the contemporary Australian theatre: formalist but simple, stern but light, unsentimental but beautiful. Andrews’s work brings fresh air, but never looks out of context. Having directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for the STC in 2001, and a number of playwrights of similar mind, from Ionesco to Mayenburg, Andrews seemed the most exciting choice of director to tackle The City, Crimp’s companion piece to The Country (presented by Red Stitch in Melbourne in 2005), which premiered at the Royal Court only last year.

Colin Moody, Belinda McClory in Sydney Theatre Company’s The City by Martin Crimp.
Photographer: Emma Furno

In a tense marital conversation, Clair (Belinda McClory) tells Chris (Colin Moody) about her chance meeting with Mohamed, a famous writer, whose daughter wore pink jeans and was taken away by the nurse. Chris, in response, tells her of his working day, his swipe card not working, possible lay-offs, the terrible Janette who will swindle her way up the corporate ladder. In the following scene, Jenny (Anita Hegh), a nurse, comes in to ask if their children could not play in Clair and Chris’s garden. She is their neighbour, her husband a war doctor somewhere far away, she cannot sleep from the noise. This is old Crimp territory: threatening subtext, unresolved bubbles of anxiety, wars locked outside our private garden. From one short scene to another, the stories start to loop and weave and bleed into one another: Chris’s high-school colleague has become a supermarket employee, working in the butcher’s section. Two scenes later, Chris, now laid off from work, arrives dressed in a white deli outfit. Symbolically important gifts make circles around the room. The dialogue and dramaturgy fail to solidify the characters into singular beings.

Andrews’s production is set on the happiest and the rarest of all stages, a longitudinal one, on which a wide black staircase, like a stadium, or the mirror of the audience space, has the characters climbing, walking, balancing on the edge, uncomfortably close to the spectators. The mise-en-scene is deliberately vague, sharply, self-consciously imprecise, yet the skill is always on show. Entire grand pianos appear and disappear, while the actors talk to each other from the sides of the black staircase, only their heads showing. Clair gets upset when Chris draws back from her, unconsciously, during a conversation; yet Colin Moody the actor has done no such thing. Ramin Gray’s fine production of The Ugly One, which succeeded The City at the Royal Court Downstairs, was built out of such meticulous avoidance of representation: his actors ate, drank, and played multiple characters without ever doing so. Here it is, a moment where Andrews introduces a small crumb of a continental theatre trend, or a pose, into the Australian theatre with great subtlety, almost as if setting a scene for his future work. (It is a gesture that ambitious artists in small cultures often resort to: trying to build modernity into the history of Yugoslav drama, Krleza’s Glembay cycle wrote an entire chapter of excellent late 19th-century drawing-room realism in an interlude between his expressionist plays: the former had to seep into the cultural subconscious before the latter could use them as productive compost. Indeed, only with Brezovec’s work since 2001 has Krleza’s expressionism been successfully staged.)

Idem.

However, if the production doesn’t lack focus, it lacks breadth. The strength of The City, in the true Pinter fashion, hinges on creating a sense of oneiric, all-encompassing menace, in which the anxieties of marriage and parenthood conflate with the horrors of faraway wars. I have written previously on the way this anxiety played itself out in the in-yer-face theatre of Sarah Kane et alia, using Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life as a pretext: a decade later, our anxiety grown stronger and firmer, The City shares many of its most incisive traits with Michael Haneke’s Caché. The careful architecture of The City encompasses the psychological terrors of the domestic and the neighbourly, the political terrors of the wide world, and the foggy terrors of a writer’s imagination. Unfortunately, Andrews’s mise-en-scene strengthens the formalist, self-aware aspects of Crimp’s text at the expense of the framing realism. It detracts, not from its intelligence, but from its emotional impact. The result looks, somewhat unfortunately, more like a performance essay than a rounded theatrical production. That the titular city is the imaginary world of the writer’s imagination does not come as quite the frightening surprise, and when Belinda McClory says so, this explanation irons out the inconsistencies in the narrative far more than it ought to. Failing to give an emotional skeleton to the piece, Crimp’s text ends up looking like a poor man’s Pirandello. Well put together, but somewhat hollow.

Stories of writers’ inner worlds seem to be a thing de jour, if one is to judge from the proximity of this production to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. As a fellow writer, well-acquainted with the phenomenon of characters falling out of cupboards, of being distinct but structurally inconsistent creatures, of changing gender and character like a costume, I don’t think the stuff is necessarily as exciting as these writers seem to think it is. Certainly, invented people have their own fragile, amorphous but powerful existence. They steal traits from your best friends and sometimes looks uncomfortably like yourself. But on its own, this cross-dressing game can only hold so much interest. We all invent people as we go: my stepdad’s wife is not the same person as my mother; my ex-boyfriend’s former girlfriend is not me. Without real situations to frame this fragility of interpretation, all that remains is a threadbare, rather ornery hall of mirrors. Enough for an essay, indeed. Not enough for a work of art.

I should close by adding that I am being a wilful nitpick. The City is a quality production of a quality play. However, Andrews lets down both his own strengths and Crimp’s complexity in a production more faithful to a single idea that the playtext, perhaps, wants to be. While excellent in many aspects, it is not unmissable the way many of us had hoped it would be.

The City. By Martin Crimp. Director: Benedict Andrews. Set Designer: Ralph Myers. Costume Designer: Fiona Crombie. Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper. Cast: Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory, Colin Moody. Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. 29 June – 9 August 2009.

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RW: The Wonderful World of Dissocia + Metamorphosis

Oh, Sydney. We may all know that Melbourne is the hub of independent theatre in Australia, but Sydney remains the elusive haven of mainstage. It has its fancy-looking Opera House shows, after all, and it has the supposed highlight of domestic mainstream, the Sydney Theatre Company (run by the glitterati Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton; home, until recently, of the one actors’ ensemble in the country; the commissioner of Benedict Andrews; the soothe for the discerning middle-class theatre-goer). It makes big-stage, big-cast, big-ambition work that the parochial Melbourne only dreams about. So why is it, then, that I come back from NSW once again disappointed?

One of each, this time. A local production that aims at decent middle, and a touring hit. STC’s production of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, and Vesturport – the Icelandic company that commissioned Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for a version of Woyzeck that Malthouse Theatre bought in earlier this year, a touring phenomenon (considering the generally low profile of Icelandic theatre) – with their Ten Days on the Island show Metamorphosis. Both troubling, with a troubling consistency.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia

The Wonderful World of Dissocia, STC, April 2009.

While I respect Anthony Neilson’s writing, it is a strange idea that writing can stand on its own on stage. Dramatic writing is eminently plastic, its abstraction and openness molding very quickly once it’s embodied in voice and movement. Sitting in Wharf 1 in Sydney, wondering where the magic had gone and how come I hadn’t noticed the clunkiness of the dialogue, I remembered Susan Sontag’s warning to the critic: apparently, concern was expressed over the intrinsic qualities of Marat/Sade, all based on the fact that it opened without making a noise, once upon a time in Poland, before Peter Brook.

In an article for The Guardian in 2007, Neilson’s advice to young playwrights was: don’t be so boring. “Boring the audience is one true sin in the theatre.” he continued, going back to things like plot, suspense, spectacle. While most theatre cannot outspectacle Cirque de Soleil, “The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I’ve heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment.” Indeed, when disliked, Neilson’s theatre is criticized for moral ambivalence paired with sensory gluttony: too little ethics, too much feeling.

Promotional clip for The Wonderful World of Dissocia for the Edinburgh Festival

Having seen his work in London, I wouldn’t be surprised if Neilson was particularly prone to failure in other people’s directing hands. What makes some of us sound like a cult is intransmittable in writing alone. Although officially credited as a playwright, Neilson’s working process involves long rehearsals with actors but barely any script. Slowly, using the bodies and the voices and the space and the moment in time at his disposal, a performance thing is put together, usually shaping up right until the opening night. Were the English culture not so interested in the playwright at the expense of any other theatre artist, it would be easy to call him a deviser, a conductor of experiment: as things are, playwright and director is all I will claim. A good Neilson production is not only smooth as butter, with no friction between the actor and the role, the plot and the esprit du temps, but also comes across as a rollicking, bustling iceberg in the best sense of the mixed metaphor. Slowly wound-up to match the precise moment in time, there is nothing timeless about it. Being carefully attuned to the moment, it knows exactly when to hit and what with. As the audience, we get the strange feeling that the production is rummaging through our heads, manipulating us, telling us lies we want to hear, coercing the response it wants, like that old boyfriend who knows how to poke at the guilt and the paranoias. One feels vulnerable, exposed, frightened, seduced, and yet, coming out of the theatre, like after a randez-vous with a swindler or a manipulative parent, you could not quite say what happened and how the hell you’re shaking on the bus stop on the verge of tears. This is done with subtle, subtle means: a semblance of normal dialogue; hints that may not mean anything at all; threats we choose to ignore. The writing doesn’t have the placelessness and timelessness of Pinter, because it’s not poetry. It’s some sort of superbly meaningful prose, working through psychology rather than language. Says Neilson again (and local playwrights, do take note):

“There’s a lot of poetic dialogue around. Some people like it, but I’m suspicious. Poetic dialogue, done badly, leaves no room for subtext. A lack of subtext is fundamentally undramatic.”

Having said this all, what Sydney Theatre Company is currently showing is not really a decent-looking Neilson show. It has all the signs of an ailing classic produced out of obligation, rather than need. The Wonderful World of Dissocia is structured like a highly-contrasted diptych: the Alice-in-Wonderland fantasia of the first half rapidly gives way to bleak social realism of the second, which our, until-then-blissfully-wandering protagonist, Lisa Jones, spends bed-bound in a psychiatric clinic. If the first act was an anxious, but thrilling song and dance (for every industrious council employee arriving to the crime scene to be beaten, anally raped and urinated on instead of Lisa, there was a pair of merry insecurity guards or a Disney-cute Swiss clockmaker), if we were increasingly concerned about the stability and safety of the wonderland, then the second act, unrelentlingly realistic, impermeable to fancy, was nearly unbearable in its precise depiction of the psychiatric ward routine (a mute abbreviation of repeated pill-taking, back-rubbing, sleep-falling and chart-marking that a person deemed insane has for a life). Any happiness to have escaped safe out of the sex-mad and violent Dissocia – with or without the missing hour – should wilt at the sight of the dreary routine of a terminal madwoman.

Music video to a song from Wonderful World of Dissocia – Reykyavik City Theatre.

I say should, because none of this happens. Marion Potts’s direction is a strangely uncommitted business. There is not enough contrast between the acts to unsettle the expectations, to play the way Neilson envisages. The first act thoroughly fails to exhilarate and upset: it can neither draw the brio from the actors to make Dissocia a genuine roller-coaster, nor ground their characters and situations in enough of an echo of reality to create that anxious recognition of something not-quite-defined. If it eventually builds suspense, it is because underneath Kate Box’s ditzy Britney we recognize the brain-dead Bondi blonde (I dare suggest), and Michelle Doake’s local councillor Dot is a version of that same earnest lady that forgives library fines. Most performances, however, are rooted in television or theatre: where we should discern the real-life subtext of Lisa Jones wandering airports and dark alleys, we discern nothing but simulacra. It is also singularly thrifty with audio-visual tricks: the quiet sound and sparse light of the first half don’t contrast the second half enough (in Neilson’s Royal Court production in 2007, the stylized acting and continuous noise in the first act was contrasted by placing the hospital room in the second act in a box, the audience seeing it through a screen, a distancing effect amplified by microphoning the actors). The acting keeps even tempo (monotone, we could say), and even the otherwise excellent Justine Clarke ends up missing the point: what made London’s Christine Entwisle so poignant as a victim of mental illness was the apparent composure, avoidance of the very wide-eyed delirium that Clarke’s Lisa keeps in both Dissocia and hospital. So, while the first act feels like an indulgent prelude to the anticipated drama of the second, the second drags like an uncertain, glib epilogue to the first. Without the hold on our emotional pulse, Dissocia‘s simple plotting and the simple language don’t have the weight necessary to keep us interested.

An imperfect Neilson is still a treat in the antipodes, still a decent night out. But for those of us who expect magic, sheer magic, it is not enough.

Metamorphosis

Vesurport’s Metamorphosis, on the other hand, is the sort of theatre blockbuster that likes Sydney on its CV. Having seen a version of their Woyzeck at the Malthouse, I was curious to see whether the Icelandic stage folk were a true breed of genius, a curiosity, or in the right place at the right time, and how much Nick Cave was to blame.

Trailer for Vesturport’s Metamorphosis at Lyric Theatre

The factoid that escaped me at the time was that Vesturport are a physical theatre company of the Splintergroup kind. Their version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is rather more athletic, rather less verbose, than your usual unearthing of a classic. One morning, when Gregor Samsa wakes from troubled dreams, he finds himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin, and expresses his distress by climbing on furniture, falling through floors, and being poetically backlit in bed. In the beautiful two-storey set, his room furnished at a 90-degree angle (opening onto the audience not the fourth wall, but the ceiling), this Samsa crawls around the house, down banisters and over the furniture. Although this production seems to feature the matinee cast (no Gísli Örn Gardarsson – the Vesturport mastermind – donning the Samsa suit), the ensemble still performs with rare beauty. Edda Arnljótsdóttir, Jonathan Mcguiness, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, and Björn Thors exhibit that beautiful acting grounded in physical gesture that still hasn’t migrated from Europe to the Anglosphere. Although I’ve heard a few miffed comments on the high pretention of the expressionist exaggeration, how beautiful to see stage presence that wastes energy! So, on the level of execution, it is all rather beautiful. Yet Metamorphosis is also a tad predictable, not because the insertion of movement is trite – there is nothing more profound than the human body moving – but because the text illustrates the acrobatics, and vice versa, without ever colliding into synergy. Like Splintergroup’s lawn (the two shows are extremely similar in discourse and execution), the performance never makes good use of all the elements it has assembled on stage – if anything, our local lawn comes across as the more imaginative, more magical of the two, because its internal inconsistencies, prejudices and immaturity are worn on its sleeve. The inconsequentiality of the equation dank apartment/Queensland/astro turf/Kafka still amounts to more than the Tim Burton sort of baby expressionism.

Interpretations of Kafka have been so numerous because all are possible: from Freud to Franz’s personal anxiety. For Vesturport, Metamorphosis is a domestic tragedy spilling over into the public, a case of political informing the personal. With a touch of unexpected, moving tact, the fears of the Samsa family anticipate the holocaust with such subtlety that most of the audience probably didn’t notice – and how else could one possibly treat the holocaust today?That Gregor’s family cannot accept the abnormality of their domestic re-arrangement becomes an image of tragic blindness when their lodger indignantly moves out, proclaiming that “the time will come when we will clean the vermin from our society.” From costume hints to acting moments, the invisible hand of the totalitarian society swelling outside the family house is always present.

However, Metamorphosis is a story too simple to adorn with spectacle and not lose some of the sharp, abstract poetry. Apart from rebuilding it from scratch, there is little that a stage version can add to the classic, which begs the question why do it in the first place. As much as it is amusing – and perhaps very interesting for whoever in the audience wasn’t familiar with the story, bless them – the pretext to make the work in the first place seems somewhat flippant. For all the physical prowess and set gorgeousness, even the final scene, a glibly beautiful garden that opens for the relieved family once Gregor has dropped dead, it never amounts to much more than anxiety with acrobatics.

My impression, post-week of very ordinary mainstream, is that Melbourne’s impression of STC may be fundamentally skewed by the fact we get only the highlights touring. Ambitious middlebrow is an excellent thing, of course. But let’s admit when it fails.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia, by Anthony Neilson. Presented by Sydney Theatre Company. Director Marion Potts. Set Designer Alice Babidge. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Composer Alan John. Sound Designer David Franzke. Movement Consultant Fiona Malone. Fight Consultant Scott Whitt. With Kate Box, Justine Clarke, Matt Day, Michelle Doake, Russell Dykstra, Socratis Otto, Justin Smith, Matthew Whittet. 18 April – 23 May, Wharf 1, STC.

Metamorphosis, Vesturport Theatre & Lyric Hammersmith, presented by Sydney Theatre Company. By Franz Kafka, adapted by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson. Music Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. Design Börkur Jónsson. Lighting Björn Helgason. With Edda Arnljótsdóttir, Jonathan Mcguiness, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, Björn Thors. Presented in association with Ten Days on The Island. 22 April – 2 May, Sydney Theatre.

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