Tag Archives: Theatreworks

The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)

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This text was first published in April-May 2014, in The Lifted Brow 22.

1. IN WHICH EPISTEMOLOGY IS DISCUSSED

The Critic always saw theatre from the first-person point of view, because there was no other way. Perhaps because, as a woman, she never felt she was able to assume the universal point of view. The idea of it – that she could see the world unmarred by who she was – felt impossible. The Critic saw beautiful, young women on stage, often in various states of undress, and could see that these were erotic stage images, but not for her. She saw hysterical women, men who would sooner commit suicide than admit an error, she saw manly banter and regret, she saw many things the meaning of which she knew, but did not feel. Theatre being theatre, she also saw many extremely rich people treat servants or people of colour badly, while they themselves revelled in relatively trivial problems, and sometimes thought about how those servants or people of colour represented her ancestors more than the protagonists, how the story of her people was only ever told on the margins. The Critic, in other words, always knew that the theatre was not meant for her, that her eyes were not the bull’s eye of the audience target, even when the message arrived. Even when she was greatly moved.

Why did the Critic like theatre, then? Why did she make it her life to see theatre three, four, five, sometimes even ten times a week, if she felt like an intruder? Because the Critic, like many – perhaps most – women, felt like an intruder in most discursive social situations already, and had become accustomed to feeling like she was sitting slightly to the left and down in the audience – a feeling that did not disappear in those prestigious, central seats. Sometimes she was elated, or crushed, sometimes her life changed while sitting in those seats; but it was an expected gift, because she had not been the target audience, because the magic that was done on her was done almost by accident.

It is said that privilege is marked by assuming that your views are representative of everyone’s. Speaking with various male critics after shows, ready to judge always slightly faster, the Critic often asked: “Why are you so sure that your opinion is the right one?” It was a strange question to many. “I know what I like,” they sometimes answered, tautology imperceptible to them.

“But you aren’t everyone”, the Critic might offer, uselessly, because in a certain sense they were everyone: they were the bull’s eye, the eye that mattered, the eye to which the art was offered. Oh, the Critic was able to pontificate with the best, argue her opinions, be sometimes insistently praising, sometimes cruelly harsh, but it was qualified intellectual bravado, always aware of where fact ended and personal opinion began.

It was with great relief that the Critic found Nataša Govedić, European dramaturg and performance critic, writing: “I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values, ideology if you prefer – and there doesn’t exist, not has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participiate in them.”

It is paradoxical, then, that the Critic had studiously avoided having opinions on supposedly ‘minority’ arts, such as Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival of LGBT arts, considering it and her mismatched. They were, of course, but less than feared. The queer audience arrived to the theatres with the same layered thinking, palpably so – everywhere around her the Critic could feel a suspicious, reserved energy of distantiation, of mistrust. ‘Is this work going to hurt me, or will it finally say something I can agree with?’ To the extent to which the audience mood can read, this is what the Midsumma audience seemed to be saying. Continue reading “The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)” »

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It has arrived: a review in pictures (The Lifted Brow)

The postman brought it on Saturday.

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It is colourful.

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It has beautiful design.

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And me inside!

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It’s printed on paper (paper!).

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It folds in the middle (folds!).

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It’s a column.

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A regular column.

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On theatre.

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And life.

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On theatre and life. And love, and sex, and friendship, and everything around theatre.

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I am so proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Petra von Kant and disgruntled bitching

A particularly mean review of Gary Abrahams’ production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Byron Bache for Herald Sun inspired a response from Daniel Clarke, of Theatre Works, to the Sun, followed by a response from the Herald sun arts editor, Sally Bennett.

Clarke:

I just felt there was a lack of respect for the artists and independent theatre as a whole. Sensationalist remarks undermine the value of the review. You can be critical of something but you’ve also got to be accurate and respectful. There is another way of talking about someone’s emotional range without comparing them to a Hills hoist. There are other ways of talking about people without reducing them to an object.

Bennett:

I am not required to get it. You are required to explain it to me, to connect with me, so that I do get it and, hopefully, have the kind of experience that makes me seek you out again.

Somewhere down the rabbit hole of Facebook, a discussion happened, and I wrote something that I will soon lose if I don’t file it here, on these pages. So here it is, my two cents:

I think reviews such as the one above are important to have, but not for reasons stated by Bache. They are important for a few reasons.

1) Theatre criticism is emotional labour. We all try to remain objective, and should be mostly objective, but experiencing art involves emotions, and every so often one is swayed by great ecstasy or dismay, and sometimes this emotion outweighs the objective judgement enough to fill the whole review. What these reviews then lose in information, they gain in emotional, erm, information. Of course, no critic should write only from emotion. But to sanction a critic from having the occasional emotional outburst is both to tell them to rein in their emotional openness to the art – openness to both profound insight and irritation – and to deny that, if art has the power to provoke deep emotions, we must accept that deep annoyance is on that spectrum.

2) Criticism is not in-house feedback, and not just audience guidelines, but forms part of that dialogue we call culture. As such, it has the responsibilities of being both truthful, non-deceptive, non-navel-gazing and engaging. For criticism to do its purpose, it really must be interesting, on top of being non-incorrect. The number of comments here, the follow-up article in The Herald Sun, and the fact that multiple people have forwarded me this review, all signal to me that this review has succeeded in being interesting. Since a few people forwarded it to me because they felt their experience of the production validated by this review means it is not entirely untruthful or deceptive. And if we get proof of non-theatre-goers reading it and enjoying it, then it is non-navel-gazing, is bringing theatre to the attention of the wider audience, and is ultimately good for us all.

3) The reason why these reviews are so popular to read is because their emotional momentum propels the reader through (I think), and the purity of the emotion gives them a unifying focus that reviews otherwise often lack.

4) Ultimately, as in everything, we can only objectively engage with the content, not the tone of the review. If the review is lying/incorrect, that is what discredits it. The emotional content makes it a good read. It also gives us information as to how at least one person felt the experience. But to debate with this review must start with debating the accusations/critique, otherwise we are not debating, we are silencing.

If I were to engage with the tone of this review, which I would in good faith describe as disgruntled bitching, I think the most interesting thing to note would be how one deals with the ongoing emotional toil of going to the theatre and having to have deep affective responses for money. It’s a question worth asking, because a critic – a good critic – is neither an unfaltering cheerleader nor a merciless marker of essays and assigner of points. A critic, like a teacher, a psychotherapist, or a dramaturg, comes to their work invested, prepared to give to the work, to the experience, but with the added difficulty of then having to turn their emotional response into constructive, coherent, articulated feedback – to other audience members and to the artists. This is hard work. It requires both emotional openness and a preparedness to then dissect one’s own emotional response. Imagine if prostitutes gave a feedback session afterwards, because it is a little bit like that. And not the other way around, because critics come into the theatre building without an agenda, without a plan.

Emotional labour is labour that cannot be done with a closed heart, that requires an empathetic – or at least sympathetic – response, and this emotional component to the work is not only unpaid, it often marks the whole job as unworthy of being paid much, because our culture sees emotions as a mark of femininity, thus lesser in value. (Typical forms of emotional labour are caring jobs (aged care, nursing, child care, teaching) and hospitality and other service jobs.) The disgruntled bitching is an interesting response to a work of art, because it’s both authentic, and stronger than forgetting about the unpleasant experience, but is also, to some extent, self-defensive. The same way in which hospitality workers tell jokes about awful customers, secretaries share stories of bosses who harass them, the way my co-workers, when I worked in a restaurant with a terrible boss prone to fits of rage, made cruel jokes about the man who paid us. It is self-defensive because how else does one process an unpleasant experience? By despairing? By quitting the work? By walking out? I sometimes wonder how theatre practitioners – plenty of whom I have witnessed bitching disparagingly about artworks – understand critics. As full human beings? Or merely as vessels of other people’s humanity?

Of course there are critics who don’t get it. Even worse, there are critics who don’t try to get it, critics happy enough to dismiss entire genres, aesthetic families and art forms because it’s not their thing, critics who don’t read up on the work and then complain of its opaqueness, and I think they don’t do their work properly and are poor critics. But this is a sin of another kind: it is lack of interest in, and openness to, work. To be upset and disgruntled at the end of a theatre show is something else entirely: it is openness that backfired, openness that felt unpleasant.

And I challenge theatre-makers everywhere: would you like a racist to see a work that condemns racism? How do you expect the racist person to react? How do you imagine this encounter? Am I the only one, seriously the only one, who sees disgruntlement as fundamental to one’s encounter with art?

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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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The Chosen Vessel; unhappy.

15.xi.2007. The Petty Traffikers: The Chosen Vessel

Direction: Stewart Morritt. Cast: Chloe Armstrong, Joe Clements & Margot Knight. Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting design: Felicity Hoare. At Theatreworks, November 1-18.

The bush gothic may be the simplest way for the baffled settler to come to terms with this land, and seems to me to have remained the central axis of the Australian experience of the country (in its raw, unpaved, unlawned form). It's an Australia seen, perhaps, through the eyes of the tourist, the aesthete, but also a psychogeographical image of a genuinely frightening place that one shouldn't spit in the face of. There is, outside the grid and the lawn country and the sublimated aspirational monsters, a real grim, mourning old land. In Barbara Baynton's stories, though, the women have to cope with the land and the men, who treat them with an almost medieval violence, and an unchecked, irrational disregard that borders on hatred, not tempered by any society, any mores.

I'm still waiting for a loud appropriation of female suffering by the pan-Australian spirit (just like the Australian bush is the harshest in the world, so, the argument could go, is the suffering of our women). However, in Baynton's dark, almost impossibly violent stories, I am reminded, again and again, of the haunting Breza, a Croatian novella following a young woman in the country tortured by hard life, awful parents-in-law and an insensitive husband, whose spectre returns after a premature death, seeps into the landscape, to haunt the village. (This famous story was made into a film, and forever tainted my name with a rural tinge.) There may have been an entire trend in binding female suffering to a harsh land.

This production opens with A Dreamer, a classic gothic tale of a hostile nature imbued with all sorts of vaguely supernatural forces. It follows the journey of a young pregnant woman to visit her mother in the bush, fighting a storm, a river, and an entire country of men not to be trusted. In Squeaker's Mate, the most famous in the collection, a woman paralysed in an accident has to watch as her husband brings another woman in the house and lets the property go to ruin. Finally she's avenged by her dog. The final number, The Chosen Vessel, is a cat-and-mouse thriller of a woman left alone in her home, with only her small child, and a passing swagman: over a course of a day and night, he visits, leaves, stalks, rapes and kills her. The final third of this little number completely shifts perspective to an outsider, a member of the theatrical choir, who watched passively from the distance. This moment in the story most remarkably echoes the formal tools of Croatian romanticism of the same period: a young woman is sacrificed on the altar of unfair society only to live eternally as a nightmare in the collective (or individual) consciousness. The shift in the story represents the transition.

The quality of the text transpires from this production, and is probably why I didn't leave before the end. The stories were separated by fairly long breaks, giving us ample time to wonder over the director's solutions, shake our heads in confusion, but always go back in again. The Chosen Vessel, more than anything I've seen in my life, is a failure of direction. At times it felt that, every time an artistic choice had to be made, it was a wrong choice.

Two out of three pieces, A Dreamer and The Chosen Vessel, are adapted (although paraphrased may be a better word) as spoken pieces with movement, in which every word of the text is pronounced as well as enacted. This seemed an interesting decision, and was certainly successful in moments of peace, psychological games, and terror; the spoken word gives a nice rhythm to stage action and superimposes the interior world of the characters as another layer on the stage. Since the set is quite gorgeous, and the lighting beautiful, some static moments are absolutely thrilling: the finale scene in A Dreamer, or the swagman slowly circling the house in The Chosen Vessel. Any faster movement, however, is completely buried under the shower of words, and hampered by a need to enact every metaphor, every image from the text; from the branches of gum trees to lightning, from creaking doors to moonlight going dim. The literalness is most striking: there was no way these people were going to let the limitations of theatre prevent them from enacting the story down to a millimetre. If the character has to run for miles and miles, in the limited space of Theatreworks she will run in circles. If the character has to nearly drown, she nearly drowns in a bathtub full of water. If there has to be a galloping horse, there is a bright red bike, and it will, also, circle around the stage. Halfway through the performance, I realised I was in the middle of a radio drama. That is, a radio drama as I imagined them as a child: people added to voices, trees added to the rustle of leaves and tubs of water added to splashing noises, all on a black background.

Squeaker's Mate, least successfully, is paraphrased as a sort of mime. Sparse dialogue replaces incessant narration. The pleasant rhythm of the text is lost. An attempt is made to narrate through images, not words, still apparently painting every comma of the text. The horrific story of the crippled woman – which may have benefited from the third-person voice – completely dissipates through some very flimsy performances: Joe Clements as Squeaker is a comic figure, rather than a monster, Chloe Armstrong is a Terry Richardson mess without the stylish decadence, and Margot Knight should not be forced to mutate between a woman and a dog. I cannot imagine the acting inventory needed to pull that off and inspire absolute terror in the audience; frankly, I am not sure that anyone in the world could have done it. Instead of terrifying, it left us feeling vaguely embarrassed for witnessing such a clumsy theatrical solution.

Consistently, the greatest flaw of this production is a complete overuse of metonymy where metaphor would have been better suited. Whenever a theatrical substitute for a non-performable element had to be found, the substitute was clearly mimicking the form, rather than function. The tree falling onto Squeaker's wife to break her back, for example, is a short, thin branch of eucalyptus, when recreating the effect of size and weight would have worked better for the scene (as it is, a strong woman collapsing under a thin piece of tree is hardly verisimilitude). Drowning in the bathtub was an unconvincing farce (and I say this as a person who immoderately loves bathtubs on stage). A ranger will find the dead woman's body in The Chosen Vessel and draw a white chalk line around her! A gesture of absolute nonsense! The entire focus of the play until then had been to re-create this living, breathing bush around the flimsy manmade dwelling: to then draw white, urbane lines in what we had imagined as thick, gothic, ominous grass, assaults our suspension of reality at exactly the wrong point.

We understood, however, that the entire structure was internally incoherent with the choice of music in Squeaker's Mate. Mid-piece, Second Woman, in an act of frivolous home-overtake, turns the radio on, and The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma plays. This song doesn't fit the play in mood or intent, only in motif: it's a satirical, but warm, tongue-in-cheek portrait of an abusive boyfriend. As such, it's not neutral enough to be simply ignored, and, if we imagine the emotional effect that the piece had been building by then as a precarious cathedral, the cathedral suddenly and irrevocably starts to shatter. As the same piece finishes, and woman/dog murders the Squeaker, an even less fortunate choice of music is exercised with Who Let the Dogs Out. But by now the cathedral has been well and truly crushed.

If The Petty Traffikers 'have a reputation for mounting successful stage adaptations of Australian literature', as The Age claims, I wouldn't know. I'm still new here. Literary adaptations, it seems, too often suffer from being appreciated more as a text, than as a living piece of theatre, praised for the worrrrds and the poetrrry, their production flaws conveniently overlooked. This production may well tour many a school around here, and convince many a child that theatre is dead. I still cannot decide whether The Chosen Vessel is an interesting failure, worth seeing, or merely an uninteresting one. Barbara Baynton's short stories, mounted here, do appear to be fine writing, and the performance may be enjoyed as a radio drama with pictures. But who am I fooling?

SEE ALSO: Alison Croggon's review at Theatre Notes
our friend Cameron in The Age

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