Tag Archives: violence

3xSisters and independent theatre (a polemic)

3xSisters is an extraordinary production, and possibly the best thing I’ve seen the independent theatre do in Australia yet. Examining Chekhov’s classical play with the confidence that comes with serious effort, large amount of talent, and big budget – as usual with Hayloft Project – it does what independent theatre should do: it insists that we know only that we don’t know anything.

Directorially divided between the founder of Hayloft and the darling of theatre neocons, Simon Stone, Black Lung’s Mark Winter, and Benedict Hardie, Sisters are pushed through not one, but three very different interpretative sieves. The parts were assigned by pulling bits of paper out of a hat, and created in isolation from one another: it would have meant something else (equally valid, perhaps more interesting) had the order been different, but the current composition, with its rather serendipitous symmetry, poses a number of big questions.

Stone opens the show with a clean, emotionally intact presentation: in a waiting room, under a row of clocks showing time from Tokyo to Berlin, the characters in evening clothes argue, break into tantrums, leave and confess secrets over the microphone. This is classical Stone, an elegant and accessible overview of the emotional content of the play that respects both the text, the characters and the audience, even as it amplifies the melodrama and ripples the textual surface.

But thus created high-strung dinner-party is broken as Hardie interrupts what is now revealed as a rehearsal. Actors are back on stage in tracksuits and wielding script photocopies. After Stone’s reduction of the text, Hardie’s prolonged reading of a scene suddenly exposes Chekhov’s beautiful, worshipped words as something both flinty and muggy and not necessarily working on stage, a mixture of chat and small-town philosophising that dies under actorly enunciation. If the scenes build up emotional intensity, they do it against the words, against the flat rehearsal reproduction, sloppily overtheatricalized, butchered by overzealous reverence. It also restores some humour, regularly overlooked in Chekhov. In a moment of absolute beauty, Vershinin delivers an intense monologue, after which the director announces that “now he can move”, and Angus Grant politely takes a few steps across the stage.

In what’s directorially the most accomplished part, the play is then amped up into Mark Winter’s mass-mediatized pastiche of pop references. Police drama, family stories of the American South, and teen tragedy are all smartly built as logical consequences of Chekhov’s provincial malaise. Told from the perspective of Solyony, the mentally destabilized soldier of the original text, it digs out not so much the 19th-century Russian violence simmering behind the genteel Prozorov walls, but the utterly strange evolution of mainstream entertainment since drawing-room drama. The pathetic Natasha, lower-class bride quietly caricaturized on the margin turns into the Oedipal Southern woman O’Neill or Williams will find; the naive Irina into the crippled child-woman of suburban slacker genre (local Dogs in Space comes to mind), but also the semi-retarted sister of all those 90s teens having sex and drugs on film (there must be a name for that fad by now); the quiet existential despair of the Prozorov sisters escalates into the 1970s urban nihilism, until ultimately it resolves itself (or rather knots itself into suffocation) in the decadent upper-class boredom as exemplified by Brett Easton Ellis: a carnivalesque party in which sorrow is smothered by meaningless sex and violence. Within Winter’s uncompromising dramaturgy, a contemporary theatrical impulse to make a classic relevant by giving audience titillation, is explored to the extreme that, despite the ironic humour, still hits the mark.

Directorially, the whole is bigger than the parts. While gorgeousness abounds, each director plays with an amount of trite moments (those buckets of blood are by now a convention teetering into cliché, and all those misguided microphones), effectively shorthanding his aesthetic. It is in the sheer accumulation that this production finds its magic, in the discourse created between the directors. Hayloft has made a name for itself as mainstage-by-other-means. Black Lung, on the other hand, is wall-to-wall orchestrated chaos (their last show, Avast II, in particular, was a consistent/beautiful jumble of pop culture). To attempt, seriously, to merge such different work into a single piece, with balls and budget, is an act of enormous courage.

It is not Chekhov, Hayloft makes it clear, but a discussion among types of contemporary theatre and the audience. It is a bitch of a production: it argues and plays devil’s advocate in a way that is perfectly, spot-on un-Australian. It is theatre as an unresolved creative argument. From the elegant to the grunge end of the independent theatre in Melbourne, visiting restrained deconstruction on the way, it is a merciless inquiry into what-the-fuck we go to the theatre for when we go to the theatre in Melbourne. Pitching completely incompatible ways of tackling the sisters one against another, the three directors raise different questions and offer differing answers, resulting in a wonderful clamour that enlightens as much as it admits its own limitations. Each part implicitly criticizes, ridicules the others, each fails on the terms of the other two, yet each succeeds in a different way and, finally, each makes demands on the audience to justify its expectations, demands and assumptions. Rather than a clean, safe ‘experiment’ that we are so often told we see (an oak tree or the nudge-nudge-wink-wink deconstruction of No Success Like Failure), which surprises no one and discovers nothing new, because it is conducted with scientific safety, not creative recklessness, 3xSisters explodes into an unruly, unexpected synergy that goes beyond the force of any individual part.

As audience, we are repeated seduced by each honey-mouthed approach: we find emotion, laugh at our own bourgeois need for catharsis through language, enjoy the ironic gore. Yet once we have been convinced to swap sides and condemn bourgeois entertainment and the worship of language, after the inerval the production takes us back, through Hardie’s third, then Stone’s fourth act, first into a text that still resounds sweet, despite deconstruction, despite our awareness of our own jejune worship, and finally into an emotional response we disagree with, but cannot quite help. We are cooed into agreeing and disagreeing with so many opposing arguments, that the play finishes with the audience shell-shocked by its own, until now unacknowledged, sensibilities. Precisely by giving us everything we could possibly want in the theatre, the incoherence of this gluttony (how can we want both dinner-party neurosis and a splatterfest?) confronts the audience with its own, now estranged, needs.

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For as long as the mainstream theatre in this city remains dinner theatre, independent theatre will keep being asked to assume the role of the mainstream. Since there is no big stage to see time-preserved Beckett on, we need to see it at La Mama. Since MTC will not do a clear Sarah Kane, it must happen at Red Stitch. And since a good Chekhov is nowhere to be seen, Simon Stone must make it. Even worse, since good solid mainstream needs to exist externally before we feel safe enough to plunge into experiment, shock, questions, we continue to confuse consistency of shape and colour, or some form perfected thirty years ago, with ‘beauty’ and ‘lyricism’. The paradox is that it becomes more acceptable to believe in the autodidact genius (Simon Stone’s treatment being the finest example), and praise well-done, elegantly repeated work, as extraordinary etc, than allow that artists need to experiment, fail, risk and grow.

Hence I take offense at reviews such as Cameron Woodhead’s in The Age. I would not take issue with the formal pedancy of calling a montage “dog’s breakfast”, were it grounded in something more than this unacknowledged, self-evident stance that theatre is to be beautiful, as in coherent, as in simple and elegant, as in well-made. As broad as this desire sounds, it excludes uncertainty, inner conflict, clashes of colour and worldview. Provocative work is praised, yes, but only if wall-to-wall grunge, only if it clearly marks the edges of its offensiveness by never crossing unexpected thresholds, by never mixing its own provocation with anything we genuinely hold dear, or with, say, emotional impact. In other words, beautiful comes to mean something we can sink into like a comfy chair, something consistent, something safe. It becomes a question of style, rather than content. The beauty of 3xSisters is a difficult, emotionally complex beauty that has more to do with the inner life of the audience that the colour coordination of stage business.

It was Jerome Bel who, a few years ago, stated in this city that theatre must be allowed to try things, that the path to success goes through failure. To attempt a production that cannot possibly succeed on the terms of the local well-made play (either preppy or grunge) strikes me as an enormously courageous act, something genuinely important for the Melbourne theatre scene, and something to be applauded even if it failed in its own terms – and this production certainly doesn’t. This is why young theatre artists are here: to create, not repeat models that were perfected around 1975. The moment they are asked to replace the state theatre companies, just because we don’t have a healthy mainstream theatre sector, they are effectively asked to act older and more experienced than they are, and create the sort of work that can best be done, and should be done, within well-funded institutions. No one becomes a respected interpreter of Chekhov at the age of 20-something. Not even in Australia, no. It takes decades of asking questions from oneself and the audience, of trying and failing and all that Beckettian stuff, until one genuinely knows how to reduce their experience into a simple, elegant masterpiece. 3xSisters is not here to be inspiring and revered: but it does bring the entire independent theatre around a table, starting a genuine discussion, one to which we don’t the answer yet. Rather than being about Chekhov, it is about theatre, which strikes me as an equally noble pursuit.

To conclude: to ask for an illuminating interpretation of Chekhov from recently graduated students – particularly when the company announces they are not doing that – is misguided and unconstructive, but to accuse a montage of inconsistency, I am sorry, Mr Woodhead, is dumb. There are other things in art as important as colour-coordination and lyricism. There is more than one way of making theatre, and asking very difficult questions is the one that offers the highest return. Mr Woodhead, let the independents be independent. Must they really constantly be asked do the MTC’s job?

3xSisters. Direction: Benedict Hardie, Simon Stone, Mark Winter. Cast: Gareth Davies, Angus Grant, Thomas Henning, Joshua Hewitt, Shelly Lauman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Anne-Louise Sarks, Katherine Tonkin and Tom Wren. Set Design: Claude Marcos. Lighting Design: Danny Pettingill. Producer: Carl Nilsson-Polias. April 24 – May 10 at the Meat Market, 5 Blackwood St, North Melbourne.

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Contemplating Hell

Contemplating Hell by Bertolt Brecht
Contemplating Hell, as I once heard it,
My brother Shelley found it to be a place
Much like the city of London. I,
Who do not live in London, but in Los Angeles,
Find, contemplating Hell, that is
Must be even more like Los Angeles.

Also in Hell,
I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens
With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,
Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless

Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,
Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than
Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which
Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere.
And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,
Even when inhabited.

Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks.

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RW: Peer Gynt

Somewhere between the eager, calculated ambition of Julien Sorel, and the holy mania of Hamsun’s narrator in Hunger, there was Peer Gynt, a provincial boy who wanted to be king. Writing in Italy, between the shaky fervour of his early fame, and the secure wisdom of his mature psychological dramas, recently expatriated Ibsen was waxing uncomfortably personal. The first half, an act of plotting bien fait, realism-however-fanciful, is his past; the second, a phantasmagoric circular nightmare, his imagined future. For five acts, Ibsen makes Peer hop from whim to whim, day-dreaming himself into glorious roles and escaping every moment of existential discomfort, confusing this wild gratification of impulsive desires and learnt ambition with truthfulness to oneself.

In Dante’s Inferno, the antechamber to Hell is reserved for those who drifted through life without ever getting behind a cause of belief. Having gambled morals, principles and relationships away for a life lived fully, Peer is revealed to be merely a self-centred little man, not different from a common small-town butcher. He spends his last dramatic moments chased by the Button Moulder with a big ladle, confronted with the very destiny he fears the most: insignificance; oblivion. Categorically denied the last honour of being a great sinner (“merely average”, quips the Button Moulder), unworthy of Devil’s time, he will be moulded into a button.

A sprawling dramatic poem, Peer Gynt careens freely between social verisimilitude and outrageous flights of fancy. In its psychological externalization, each troll is a momentarily irresistible girl, each nightmare a folktale monster. It was not intended for performance, and Ibsen exuberantly did away with reasonable staging demands: spanning 50 years, two continents, an obscene number of characters, changes of tone, pace and fabular focus, it is as unstageable as a play gets. But it was Heiner Muller who said that only dramatic writing that cannot be realised on stage is of any use for the theatre.

Daniel Schlusser takes the text as the starting point to explore the questions and answers Ibsen posed himself. His Peer Gynt eludes, disappoints, dissonates, amazes, stretches and contracts, and meanwhile disagrees with most of what we see on Australian stages these days: despite occasionally looking it, it is not lyrical, not pretty, not atmospheric, not sentimental, and not unknotting itself with silly humour or cute explanations. lt unravels its threads of inquiry with slow thoroughness of a Hans van den Broeck (not among the C de la B for no reason), and yet the complex performance requires no long-winded explanations before it can be fully felt. Its intellectual rigour is solid enough to allow itself wild playfulness. It is gorgeous, masterful theatre.

It is entirely possible to read this Peer as a satire on conventional naturalism. The establishing scene, that two-minute cliché of actor milling around the stage, unaware of the fourth-wall crowd, is here stretched into an unrelenting, 30-or-so-minute setting up of the performance/wedding stage. A fridge is hauled in, a pool filled with balloons, the actors walk on and off stage wrapped in a visible, but gauze-thin layer of heightened stage presence: bringing the drinks, the beach towels, talking into their phones, conducting barely audible conversations, whispered gossip. The endless wedding implosion that builds up is an opaque enactment of a complex social situation, breaking into mini-conflicts, small seductions, power negotiations in far corners. All a sort of long pout at the audience that wants staged life.

However, it is when the performance breaks into the song and dance of serving-the-play, and the performers build up heightened actorliness, that strangeness sets in. In a wonderful inversion, the text is not a source of truth, but an exclamatory deceit. Once literary faithfulness start showing, it looks incongruous to whatever stage reality has been created. The performers recite Ibsen’s extravagant language and emotions sounding more and more like delusional lunatics. Gynt fornicates in the forest, becomes a troll, abandons lovers, grows old, and the closer the performance follows the plotline, the more it seems to descend into plotless chaos. Aase dies when appropriate, then resumes her stage life the hungover morning after. Supporting characters loiter on stage, or drift off into small games. Off-handedly providing the dramatic arc, the production ends in medias res of psychological carnage, leaving us confused, hovering without catharsis (save for a small burst of soap bubbles).

Katie-Jean Harding, Annie Last, Rebecca Bower, Kyle Baxter and Nikki Shiels inPeer Gynt. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Arbitrating the guilt for this life less lived, Schlusser avoids the easy parallel with our media-fed crave for the semiotics of success rather than success itself (remember teenage Grace in Sally Potter’s YES who, when asked what she wants to be, torpidly sighs: “Famous…”?). In Kyle Baxter’s performance, Peer is not a megalomaniac boy whose unstructured, but violent ambition ruins women, and then himself. He is an extraordinarily passive character instead, prancing on the outskirts of the stage playing with props, being laughed at by the cashed-up bogans and mellowly accepting their ridicule as a sign of belonging. If he is a man-boy, it is because the entire group has a vested interest in keeping him on their own level of existential blindness, and it is his overdeveloped imagination that keeps him losing whatever path he may have, not selfish hunger. Ibsen’s Gynt confuses the symbol for the meaning, hunting solid objects that stand for power: money, ruthlessness, detachment, crowns or roles (he wants to be an emperor, an explorer, a philosopher). Schlusser’s Gynt, a bubble-wrapped boy living on the cusp of the most profligate moment in history, in a wealthy, First-World metropolis, doesn’t ask, but is constantly offered. Rather than spreading his ambition too thinly, he loses himself by not being able to refuse. Aase, the mother who lives through her adored child (beautifully calibrated Edwina Wren), forms an alliance with Solveig, obsessively exchanging stories of their dear boy. And Solveig, the silver-prayer-book docile image of all the 19th-century girl cliches, is in Karen Sibbing’s manically delicate performance shown to be a wilful child, a mind as unformed as Peer’s. If she grows old waiting for her childhood crush to return, it is not God-condoned devotion that keeps her in their hut, but infantile refusal to burst her own bubble of romantic fantasy.

In the setting up, it soon becomes clear that men and women live separate fantasies: while women strut on high heels, drink champagne and throw tantrums over their wedding dreams, men set up their beer and Fußball den at the other end of the stage. Unable to break the chalk circle of the masculine group, Gynt becomes a toy boy for the women, with all the confused disrespect that this powerless subordination breeds. In the interplay of outpours of egocentric affection, everyone uses everyone, and everyone feels a winner, yet everyone also feels virtuous, affectionate, generous. When, in the last minutes of the play, Peer Gynt begs Solveig to tell him who he is, where he is, she glows with giggly joy as she announces: “You live in my head, in my song, in my dreams”. Nobody comes off clean: just like Torvald is himself trapped in the dollhouse he has built for Nora, so are these Gen Y child-women shown to be complicit in the infantilisation of the men that hurt and abandon them. In a particularly morbid observation, Solveig jumps into a noise-making, ridiculing frenzy, trying to get Peer’s attention away from his dying mother. (Whether I share this boy-friendly thesis is not the point: it is rare to see a theatre production intellectually both brave and sound enough to freely disagree with.)

However, this psychological triangle is refracted through so many distancing prisms that one could not know the text and still leave with a headful of thoughts. Ibsen’s poem already opens up conflicting levels of narrative. Is it a socially verosimile fable, or hallucinatory psychological realism? It is a story of a story-teller, a man-onion who lies because he couldn’t find his way out of his own mind. It is, finally, half-autobiography and half-anxiety. Schlusser’s production piles the layers even higher. On the boards, it builds storeys of vertiginous conflicting realities: the play slowly establishes itself as a party cum wedding; the wedding is a rehearsal; the rehearsal collapses under the disagreeing perceptions of the participants’ roles; Gynt’s entire life, fantastic as it is, probably no more than an overnight trip that ensues as the rehearsal descends into drunken shenanigans, and then further into an orgiastic ritual of sacrifice. Georgie Read, a woman in 1920s attire, walks through the set untouched by the bogan mayhem. And yet constantly, as a man with a panama hat runs to fetch the characters that drift out into the courtyard through the door at the back of the stage, there is a subtle feeling that we may be looking at a bunch of asylum crazies biding their time. (The crucial moment in Act IV, in which Peer is crowned the emperor of a mental hospital, is not so much missing as dispersed, both subtly pointed at and self-evident.) All apart from the simple fact that, since the characters make demands on the sound technicians and call the stage manager in to wipe the party mess, we all clearly admit to being in the theatre.

Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer and Kyle Baxter. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Indeed, one of the main concerns of this Peer Gynt is the multiplicity of make-believe , and the disorder that ensues in leakage. While Ibsen remains unclear about how much of a dream the entire story is, Schlusser keeps us wondering whose dream it is. Layering theatricality and anti-theatricality, virtually all stage action is apportioned into multiple collective illusions with varying numbers of participants, and each one looks equally dubious: from the footballer-wife paradise of cheap positional goods, to Peer and Solveig’s romantic idyll. Turning the wedding into a rehearsal, thus, is not just a stylistic device, but a gesture of utmost importance. There is no logic to rehearsing a performative act, except as an anxiety attenuator; yet it absorbs and breathes that same anxiety because it becomes a fragile battleground of dream and reality – just like the theatre turns into the battleground of ideas not because it is a safe space, but because it isn’t; just like one’s fantasies need to be corrected before they result in actions, and why play-acting is not for sissies. As these self-declared bubbles of comfort build up, Schlusser examines the burning violence they create outside. Wars, gangs, social groups, fashion trends and riots are all no more than collective fantasies in action, indoor safety upkept with violence radiating outwards. Thus the boganville, grown heavy and momentuous with alcohol, turns into a gang mutilation of Anitra (Sarah Armanious), the wedding dress-maker and sacrificial wog. Georgie Read, who follows individuals around wide-eyed and curious, mimicking their bacchanalia with utmost seriousness (from stripper dances to senseless violence), as if trying to prevent the friction between the conflicting frenzies by upholding them all, is not merely an ambulant comic relief, but a body that turns every quotidian affectation, every social convention, into deadpan absurdity.

And yet this same theatre never becomes a collective fantasy of its own. With heavily dramatic wasted on nothing truthful nor meaningful, and savagely grotesque endpoints of mundane behaviour played with glassy, anti-spectacular neutrality, the presentation is jarringly anti-empathetic. It betrays expectations with such cold consistency that we walk out feeling anything but lulled. Giddy, rather, and hiccuppy and confused, while the kick is slowly making its way to the gut. Despite its tone, looking all things wrong (lyrical, cute, naive, sentimental, funny), the final portrait is bleak, damning. Peer Gynt is no longer the sad story of one lost boy. Tonight, the tragedy is collective.

Peer Gynt. Based on Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and Costume design Anna Cordingley. Lighting design Kimberly Kwa. Sound designers/composers Nick van Cuylenburg and Martin Kay. Stage manager Jo Trevathan. Performed by Kyle Baxter, Edwina Wren, Karen Sibbing, Heloise Jackson, Justin Arnold, Nikki Shiels, Rebecca Bower, Annie Last, Maj Thomsen, Nick Jamieson, Katie-Jean Harding, Georgie Read, Josh Price, Sarah Armanious, Alexander England, Mike Steele, Kevin Fa’asitua Hofbauer, Kade Greenland. VCA, 26 March – 1 April.

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Woyzeck

Woyzeck, entering the play already half-psychotic, wanders lost in a world that has slipped into an orgiastic drill of sex and death. On these terms, the Malthouse Woyzeck works. While it is a production characterised by Kantoresque abstract gaudiness, it makes madness felt, close by, desired and understood as a natural reaction against the overabundance of noise.

In his little book “Why read classics?”, Italo Calvino remarked: “A classic is a text that has never finished saying what it has to say.” This is the key to understanding the relentless allure of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. As Alison Croggon has incisively observed, Woyzeck is the poster child for a masterpiece by error, a fragmentary, never completed text that eludes the reader, that leads nowhere, that’s all trails to wrong clues. Yet it is this openness that has kept Woyzeck current, allowed it to be stretched, pulled, read and re-read.

It seems to me that, in order to qualify for Calvino’s definition of the classic, a work of art needs to never quite add up to hundred percent, never achieve the satisfying closure of clarity and meaning; a part needs to remain loose, dark, inexplicable but somehow true. A small bit, irreducible to an explanation, fighting against interpretation of the rest of the work like a guerrilla sign. Like the leap towards realism that the Italian Renaissance achieved with sfumato, the haziness of detail; like the mysteriously evocative nexus, discovered by Bataille in The Story of the Eye, between the erotic imagination and those indelible memories, traumatic elementary images, on which, I quote, “the conscious floats indefinitely, unable to endure them.” Impossible to pin down, wiggling out of its own conclusions, a classic makes the best use out of what Slavic languages call nedorečenost: the quality of not having finished what one started saying.

Certainly inspired by the French Revolution, that macabre social experiment that allowed for every hypothesis to be tested, Georg Büchner died young, fervent and revolutionary-minded, but before finding a way to outline any of his political programs and social solutions in literary terms. Woyzeck could be read as his attempt to develop some politically and psychologically radical ideas, thoughts that existed only in the embryonic form in the early nineteenth-century Germany: a plausible social anatomy of madness, a link between domestic violence and institutional violence, the questionable morality of class oppression. The utter strangeness of Büchner’s ideas, combined with the ferocity of the delivery, have reserved him a place in literary history as the forefather of expressionism (and literary sedition, but less commonly so). This may sound like an overstatement to the 2009 Melbourne kids, who get costume war dramas a dime a dozen but, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Woyzeck was the first German literary text to feature lower-class protagonists (before there even was such a thing as working class!). Unfinished and ambitious, the play remains a tantalizing sketch, a light speculation rather than a thundering condemnation. Madness, murder, and medical experiment chime and collide, without ever agreeing on a cause and consequence.

Bojana Novakovic in Woyzeck, Melbourne 2009. Photo: Jeff Busby.

While Woyzeck has become a stage classic that every town seems to be playing a version of, Australian mainstream theatre doesn’t see nearly enough of this play. Michael Kantor’s production, now playing at the Malthouse, is a buy-in, based on Gisli Őrn Gardarsson’s widely-toured musical adaptation for Vesturport Theatre. This production eschews the Icelandic acrobatics, the factory setting and the complex pop referencing so beloved by our European brethren (Marie appears in a Snow White-looking attire), and keeps the storyline edit and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s music. Whether that’s an improvement or not is hard to tell without having seen the Icelandic version. I admit I am intrigued: Vesturport seem to have toured the Anglosphere extensively, a rare feat for a European production. Yet aquariums and trapeze tricks do not quite Woyzeck make; Vesturport’s make-over sounds much too much like an attempt to energize this bone-dry play into a moist MTV vaudeville, a fury of excess. Rather, with its stop-start episodes, its hallucinatory slips and its slow build-up of betrayal, the story of Woyzeck is defined by the blocked, frustrated, supressed and excessively slow, uneven trickle of energy.

The Malthouse production keeps it tense and grinding: the bleakness is never relieved, the pacing never overly accelerated. Woyzeck’s breakdown is as slow and painful to watch as it would be to experience. It is a strangely satisfying, accurate production. Kantor’s signature insistence on kitsch and trash works wonders. Woyzeck has been moved to the contemporary war zone. The maddening effect is inscribed not into the banal churn of the institution and the upper classes’ thought terrorism, but into the whirlpool of war. And Kantor gets it very strangely right: war really does drive people insane, and it does it mainly through kitsch and through trash. War is an absolute assault on the senses, defined, like any mass hysteria, by the utter absence of silence, a relentless noise that smothers thought.

War also, let’s get this straight, works as a big conscription machine. Years before any war can commence are spent drumming up playground tunes, working up as many souls as possible into a murderous frenzy, which can only be achieved by playing to the lowest common denominator. Once the war starts, it is even more crucial to keep everyone amused, attuned, sharp – the whirlpool accelerates. Kitsch and trash, thus, are woven into the very fabric of war. Woyzeck, entering the play already half-psychotic, wanders lost in a world that has slipped into an orgiastic drill of sex and death. On these terms, the Malthouse Woyzeck works. While it is a production characterised by Kantoresque abstract gaudiness, it makes madness felt, close by, desired and understood as a natural reaction against the overabundance of noise.

The episodic state of the play is well-served by the insertion of music numbers, combining with Peter Corrigan’s set into a semi-abstract nightmare of hard form and vague emotion. The cast is thrillingly good, from the meandering wartime masculinity of Hamish Michael and Tim Rogers (a wondrous, visceral stage performer), to the off-key but intense Bojana Novakovic, and the humane, exasperated madness of Socratic Otto. Marco Chiappi, Merfyn Owen and Mitchell Butel as the trio of torturers are beautifully realised. As the characters descend into a partying, stuporous insanity, they become a collective oneiric carnival, with the harshness of detail and absolute absence of overarching structure that serves the play particularly well.

Less successful is the overall concept: by choosing to present it in the simple and consistent visual key of post 9/11 warfare and Mad Max proletarian hell, Kantor interprets the production into a corner. It may not be a circus extravaganza, yet, if it fails, it fails by being too solid, too defined in its message, unable to match the operettic, manic inconsistency of its literary model. The beauty of the play is in its openness, its nedorečenost. This production, defining itself in terms of the War on Terror, is not big enough to hold it all, and many bits are slipping out, unaccounted for. Unable to spread its imagination as wide and erratic as Büchner, it explores only some of the many meandering thoughts. The class friction, the obscene, smug and self-moralising brutalism of science and institution upon the lower-class man, as represented by the Doctor and the Captain, don’t quite survive in this Mickey Mouse madness. The semantic sprawl of Buchner instead morphs into a two-pronged commentary both on the horror of the lower-class warscape, and the upper-class decadence, with a very uneven result.

Mitchell Butel and Socrattis Otto in Woyzeck, Melbourne 2009. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The great effectiveness and restraint of much of the production is undermined by some small, but resonatingly unfortunate choices. The first part kicks off as a solid failure: drum major the rock star, performers dancing in a Village People line…; there is a camp decadence to the entire thing that misses the mark. The Doctor, here represented by Mitchell Butel with Mickey Mouse ears and a skelleton T-shirt, enters signifying all sorts of confusing things at once, but none to do with institutional oppression, while Captain’s remarks whilst being shaved fizzle aimlessly, in the lack of class target. However, the production really takes off in the last two thirds, the lewd and quite sad seduction of Marie by the Marco Chiappi’s Drum Major and Woyzeck’s helpless frustration turning into jealousy, mostly because the collective madness is so well played that, by the time Woyzeck snaps, we are irritated enough by the colours, sounds and the gaudiness of the production we would gladly join in. The calmness that besets the play after Marie’s murder, Novakovic floating under the plexiglass platform/swamp like a strange fish (sensuous and grotesque as a Klimt painting) is, contrastingly, a harsh bubble of horror. Rarely, rarely does the finite futility of murder fill the stage with such accuracy.

Yet Kantor chooses to set Marie’s murder on a beige couch of a middle-class suite, a bubble of soulless comfort on a set dominated by sharp black angles. For as long as we choose to interpret his interpretation as that of sex, drugs and decadence, that’s fine, yet choosing to do so would strip the production of credibility. Removing the murder from aesthetic horror of the entire remaining play into a setting that’s faux calm, insincerely neutral and only a semblance of peace, it appears equivalent to the usual setting of Marie’s murder into a park. Yet some bit of logic fails to click. Woyzeck hangs mid-air, not quite making its point. What sofa?, where from?, why? Since this is only the first moment in the production where semantic friction grates hard, it doesn’t result in layering, but confusion, and no complexity is gained.

Later, committing the second and last faux pas, Tim closes the play by saying, The loveliest murder we’ve had in years. And he doesn’t say it with that bourgeois, decadent righteousness that would tie it back to the Captain’s shaving, the production doesn’t communicate a touch of awareness of how inappropriate this phrase is. He says it like an elegy, and kills whatever effect may have survived the sofa. Having played it just right for so long, Woyzeck ends on a false note. As a result, it is a very fine production, but unevenly intelligent.

Among the theatre commentators, there appears to be a solid division between the literary folk and the visually-minded: while most practitioners seem to fall among the eyesy, both playwrights and critics, significantly, appear to be verbally inclined: the disagreement between Alison and Martin over this production, looks like an exemplary case of the rift between the richness of the text (both its literary and historical merit), and the relative poverty of the images, which in this case illustrate and fill the narrative holes with syrupy consistency, but do not launch a world of their own. As an insider to war, but an outsider to the world of televised conflict, I cannot judge the effect of the stage images on the audience, which seems to me the most problematic side of this type of production. To recycle and reference, in this context, is to push emotional buttons that may lead, quite the contrary, to disaffected boredom. What this Woyzeck depicts, in the spectrum between the intense misery of the poor and banal self-destruction of the rich, is hard to tell.

Ultimately, Woyzeck is a strangely satisfying production, yet never more than the sum of its parts. While it is possible to justify every false step it makes by some sign in the text, the interpretative tradition or pop imagery, it remains a solid illustration of the text, rather than a theatrically independent work of sheer brilliance. It adds nothing, either visually or philosophically. It depicts some solid madness. Whether it points to the right causes for this madness, whether it tries to at all, and even whether it ought to, are all points up for discussion.

Woyzeck. By Georg Büchner, adapted by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, English translation by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Ruth Little. Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Directed by Michael Kantor, sets, costumes and mask designs by Peter Corrigan, musical direction, sound design and additional composition by Peter Farnan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Mitchell Butel, Marco Chiappi, Hamish Michael, Bojana Novakovic, Socratis Otto, Merfyn Owen and Tim Rogers. Music performed by Simon Burke, Xani Kolac and Dan Witton. Malthouse Theatre at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, February 4-28.

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Anatomy Titus, The Work of Wonder: This Review is About the Audience.

1. Almost by accident, I came across the following story:
In [the Serbo-Croatian war in the early 1990s], for the first time in history, the tactic of rape became a strategy. Soldiers took women from their homes, from UN or Red Cross or refugee convoys, and put them in the so called “rape camps.” Young girls, daughters taken from mothers, mothers taken with their daughters. They were systematically raped until they got pregnant; then they were released from the camps, but in a late stage of pregnancy when it is too late for legal abortion. These women came to Zagreb, the Croatian capital and second refugee stop. Newspapers were filled with their stories: what to do with the unborn conceived in such terrible circumstances. The word “children” was avoided. –Sanja Nikčević. Rape as War Strategy: A Drama from Croatia

I am not sure what a good artistic response to a story of this kind would consist of, but I am not convinced it would of a woman raped in a locker, vomiting on the floor, as in The Women of Troy, a field trip into abjection. Rape camps are a different story to the holocaust, and neither is the digital photography of Abu Ghraib an instance of banal evil: both, instead, are illustrations of the primordial excess, the glee of violence. Barbaric, sweet and sticky and ecstatic, just like the pre-historic wars were, but not mechanical, not absent-minded, not jogging suits, not plastic bags. In confusing the two, I am increasingly convinced the Kosky/Wright production misunderstood its role, and took part in the creation of gore, in titillation. It was competing with the images, trying to find a new angle, perhaps (although I doubt) re-sensitize us: in that respect, it was all about the internal audience equilibrium of emotion and revulsion. If there was any genuine banality there, it was the guilty banality of spectatorship, banality the audience may have been attempting to exorcise through submission to ever more disturbing images. And the point at which these images we are creating to ourselves become more excessive, more disturbing than anything likely to occur in real life, we are making a form of very simple, primary-coloured pornography: images for emotional masturbation.

To try to reduce the pain of others to the interchangeable familiar images, Baudrillard’s circular simulacra, is to deny them their particularity, to reduce them to symbols pointing at our own, limited experience that they sit squarely outside of. Far from being an exercise in sympathy, observing extreme suffering, arising from extreme consequences, is a deeply alienating experience. There is no more distant other than the person undergoing a pain we cannot even imagine, in circumstances profoundly distant from ours. By drawing on our bank of images, The Women of Troy gets implicated in another, more complex story.

2. The political in the theatre, it has been noted, does not consist of topics, but of modes of perception, of sign usage – theatre as a refuge from and an opposition to the information-conveying of the mass media that shapes our common reality. “It is a fundamental fact of today’s Western societies that all human experiences (life, eroticism, happiness, recognition) are tied to the consumption and possession of commodities (and not to a discourse)”, writes Hans-Thies Lehmann in Postdramatic Theatre. “This corresponds exactly to the civilization of images that can only ever refer to the next image and call up other images. The totality of the spectacle is the ‘theatricalization’ of all areas of social life.” The citizen becomes defined by spectatorship.

If fiction and reality merge, it is not because, as is often deplored, we mistake news for invented imagery, but because the act of communication has been eroded by the separation of the event from the perception of the event. There is no longer an accountable sender, and an accountable receiver, connected through communication, just pure, mass transmission of information, Thus the continual presentation of bodies that are abused, injured, killed through isolated (real or fictive) catastrophes creates a radical distance for passive viewing: the bond between perception and action, receiving message and ‘answerability’, is dissolved. We find ourselves in a spectacle in which we can only look on.

Two productions the 2008 theatre season is ending with are both, in their own ways, questions of reaction and response to images of the unpicturable. Both are equivocally successful, but these are difficult, worthwhile attempts. Both exemplify the tendency of postdramatic theatre to withdraw from the reproduction of images into which all spectacles ultimately solidify, shifting instead towards non-emphatetic theatre understood as a situation within the totality of our world. The energy curve of the performance eschews the dramatic arc, and turns calm and static. That both of these performances “have nowhere to go” after the explosive start can only be seen as a formal error if we are expecting drama of the pain of others, employed to make us feel familiar feelings.

Lehmann notes:
“[In] a theatre that is no longer spectatorial but instead is a social situation (…) a reversion of the artistic act towards the viewers takes place. The latter are made aware of their own presence and at the same time are forced into a virtual quarrel with the creators of this theatrical process: what is it they want from them? The aesthetic object hardly has any substance any more but instead functions as a trigger, catalyst and frame for a process on the part of the viewer. Logically, the spectators get the theatre they 'deserve' individually through their own activity and willingness to communicate. Following visual art, the theatre turns back to the viewer.”

3. Since contemporary European theatre is my cup of tea, particularly when it leans towards intellectual, formally clever, or Germanic, I had high hopes for the Red Stitch production of Christian Lollike's The Work of Wonder (original title: The Wonder: The RE-Mohammad-TY Show), staged by Andre Bastian. I was expecting to like it in the face of a whole disapproving world. Instead, I left East St Kilda aggravated, yet confused about the core of its failure. If nothing on that stage added up, was the text, the milieu, or the director to blame?

The Work of Wonder.

As it usually happens when a production does not, in any way, speak to me, I tried to view it with all sorts of different eyes; perhaps it speaks to someone else. Finally, I found my clef browsing through video clips of a Danish production of the same play. The Work of Wonder is staged as a chaotic talk-show, of that semi-intellectual poseur and attention-seeker kind Europe abounds with; different characters are broadcast in on a large screen, and there is a great deal of dancing to rock music. And suddenly it worked. The long exposition about 9/11 being the greatest work of art, with the counter-argument that the famine in Africa is greater, more artistically coherent, larger number of victims, no set beginning nor end…, was now a mirror of another, self-satisfiedly smart-arse society; and every time the Hollywood actors interjected to tell us that, when we want to hear a story about others, we really want a story about ourselves, we had to agree, then look down in shame because it was exactly what we were getting.

There is a cohesion between the stage action and the audience Weltanschauung in this configuration that allows for Lollike's extremely complex decision to change tune in the last quarter, and suddenly present us with a carefully enacted pain of others. An American woman whose fire-fighting husband is missing; a Chechen schoolboy hostage; a Somali woman in a rape camp; and Mohammad the terrorist. Having had to agree, theoretically, on the moral incongruity of pain spectatorship, we are suddenly getting our work experience.

My introduction of a production by means of another production was, perhaps mainly, to absolve playwright Lollike. I would not dare insinuate that there is one right way of doing this play (or any other) – merely that the Red Stitch incarnation was an exceptionally confusing failure to make sense. It is a reasonable assumption that Bastian could not communicate his intentions to the actors, but a greater problem is that he does not seem to know, or care about, his audience. It would be very difficult for any group of Australians, and particularly the Red Stitch audience (which is only a slightly more left-leaning MTC crowd), to relate to the supreme cynicism with which Central Europeans, having spent the 1990s with bloodshed on their doorstep, observed the carnivalesque combination of schmaltz and military porn that poured in through the US media after 9/11. The collapse of the Twin Towers, in this country, was taken very personally. The sense of identification was incommensurate, perhaps, but nonetheless real, and distinctly opposed to the smirking distance Mitteleuropeans assumed, allowing for quick dissipation of compassion once neo-cons started orchestrating minor world wars. As a result, Stockhausen's statement in 2008 Melbourne sounds eerie, charmless.

Lollike's is a cynical play looking for a cynical audience. Red Stitch's is a sentimental audience looking for emotional cues. In the last, semi-serious quarter, there is palpable relief in the audience as the sentimental catharsis finds its centre, not merely against Lollike's intent, but quite consistently undermining any other organisational logic that may form in the production. More unforgivably, Bastian locates the intellectualizing cynicism of the first part entirely in the disaffected world of clubbing juvenile artists, alienating the uncomfortable. In doing so, it fails on all fronts. It creates a play that leaves our predisposition for emotional porn shaken but solid, and outsources the discomforting hypocrisy entirely into the world of some other, unlikeable others.

The Work of Wonder.

4. The main aspect of The Bell Shakespeare / Queensland Theatre Company co-production of Heiner Műller's Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome, which has by now travelled the country, is its nonchalance. For a work of theatre in which limbs are constantly shed, blood spurted, and heads offed, it is shockingly lightweight. In the words of the inimitable Alison, it comes close to jolly japes about mutilation.

Earlier this year, mourning over an off-mark treatment of a dramatic text, I was reprimanded for not accepting the authorship of the director, a constructive criticism if there ever was one. Leaving aside Shakespeare, leaving aside Műller, leaving aside Elizabethan theatre and leaving aside Bell Š, shedding layers of context, culture, intent, what remains is an unusually interesting production. It is, strangely enough, the most Australian theatre piece I have ever seen.

Műller is one of those dark dudes whose work is infinitely performed in Europe, but who doesn't grace local stages often, putting him in the honourable company of Ionesco, Kane, Srbljanović, Genet. There is political, historical and moral complexity in his work, little cathedrals of thought, that may be too teethy, too disillusioned, too detached for this same 2008 Melbourne that cannot bond with Stockhausen. And the audience is not to be ignored. I have noticed that I react differently to the same theatre production depending on the milieu, depending on the publicity that coats it, the introduction notes, geared to different theatre-goers. What looked, in Zagreb 2008, like an intelligent, playful take on epic story-telling, looks, in Sydney 2009, like a danger of four hours of feelgood. If up-to-date cynicism fails in Red Stitch, how would East German, pre-1990 pessimism fare?

Instead, the Bell Š/QTC production manages to shape a fully local version of the same spirit, turning heavy disillusionment into nihilism lite. In the most insightful review to date, Alexis Harley notes that Anatomy Titus is, above all, a sabotage, a commentary on the inappropriateness of Titus Andronicus as an aesthetic achievement. Bell Š goes one step further: it is a sabotage of the viewing experience, in a way that is, for once, neo-Brecht for the local climate. If The Women of Troy is a highbrow employment of the aesthetic spirit of Rotten.com or Vice Magazine, Anatomy Titus is Verfremdung of Rotten. There is no gore catharsis: there is only gore alienated. It is stupendously inconsistent, with such consistency that it needs to be taken as intentional. The theatricality is brought in and dismissed, in moments of elevated acting, in verbatim employment of stage language; but so is the pared-down sobriety that would give modernized dignity to the same inappropriateness. If, instead of women, men are raping men with blue eye shadow, this is to de-sentimentalize the victim-woman and, in Harley's words, “to avert the terrible possibility that the rape may, to our porn-jaundiced eyes, seem sexy”. We are miles away from the locker and the vomit. What we get are a bunch of relaxed, playful young men enacting cartoon violence and pronouncing Elizabethan verse, with the same nonchalance with which, in other parts of the country, they will make jokes about the suffering of some coloured, distant people over barbecue, yet take the inconsequential melodrama of their own society seriously. The stretch between the insular she'll-be-right-mateship and the vague imperative of historical empathy are jammed into a beautiful image of contemporary Australian confusion.

Anatomy Titus. John Bell, Christopher Sommers, Steve Rooke.

There is no solace of beauty on this stage, no comfort of lyrical coherence. Just the futile, circular enactment of futile, circular violence, both rendered shabby and meaningless as a result. The play opens in a plywood box covered in gigantic red stains. As the bucket of fake blood is smeared across actors' bodies, as we come to expect each stain to be matched with a slaughter, the historical repetition of bloodshed is paired up with its repetition on stage, on this set, night after night; and then a moment of silliness, a gollywog doll or John Bell as Titus with a chef's hat, will shatter any cloud of sombre reflection this may have sparked on the purposefulness of our theatre-going, of our spectatorship. Blood-drenched books used as the only prop, apart from a plastic bucket of blood and a few kitchen items, reinforce the point. Larrikin irreverence at its disturbing finest. This is theatre strongly aligned, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps accidentally, with the critique of the society of spectacle.


<>Anatomy Titus. Christopher Sommers and Steve Rooke.

5. This brings us to another interesting question: was this an intentionally smart reading of Müller, or just my maverick reading of the production? Much of the local criticism has interpreted the production as the inability of a major company to make dark, visceral theatre. In a parallel universe, in 2006 Croatian National Theatre did a first mainstage production of Kane's Crave in the country. Visual data look promising enough, yet the reviews were uniformly negative: the stage was too big, the staging was wrong, there is a right way of doing Kane, this wasn't it. Considering that, technically, there isn't a right way of doing Crave, the sum of criticism could be summed up as a lament from the indy-minded: Sarah Kane is ours. A major theatre, the logic goes, has no freedom of interpretation. A radical playwright is re-invented as an untouchable classic.

Coupled with the shocked negative reaction by more conservative critics, in both cases, two sides are united in disapproval of this bridging of worlds. Quick dismissal closes an important argument, that of the place of invention within major theatre companies. Whether the Bell Š audience appreciates the point is another question altogether. Although, considering the numbers the company attract, and the variety within their audiences (that comes with numbers), I would imagine that enough audience members would understand the stage goingons, that the production is speaking to someone the way The Work of Wonder could not.

More importantly, its programming opens up the possibility that Anatomy Titus will contribute to the cultivation of another mainstream theatre audience, something this country badly needs.

The Work of Wonder. By Christian Lollike. English translation by Greg Hanscomb. With Dion Mills, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter & Chris Saxton. Director: André Bastian. Choreographer: Peta Coy. Set Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting Design: Stelios Karagiannis. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 19 Nov – 20 Dec.

Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome, A Shakespeare Commentary. By Heiner Müller. Translated by Julian Hammond. Director: Michael Gow. Design: Robert Kemp. Lighting design: Matt Scott. Composition and sound design: Brett Collery. With John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter. Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company. Malthouse Theatre, Nov 26 – Dec 6.

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The Women of Troy; a more discursive response.

A high-school boy, at the end of The Women of Troy, tells me uncertainly: I'm not sure if it's not making me feel anything because I've been desensitized by television… Despite the necessary reservation we should have for this self-analysis, as children today have been so overanalysed in their exposure to televised and game violence that they are conscious of the expectations placed on them to be heartless before their time, the boy is correct.

I am reading, over and over, The Women of Troy described as powerful, shattering, poignant, and these are such disingenuous words. It is, quite the contrary, deliberately distancing, alienating, from beginning to end. If anything, we may guiltily leave the Malthouse Theatre feeling like we should feel shattered, unsure whether it's not touching us because we're philistines, or because we've become desensitized to Abu Ghraib as idea and image, but that is the extent of the emotional reaction. And that is, ultimately, the problem with The Women of Troy: it doesn’t seem to exist for an audience. It doesn’t want to make us feel, it doesn’t appear to want to make us think. If anything at all, it wants to disgust.

The Women of Troy.

Staging a clef is a very common way of modernising a theatre classic: dressing it up with imagery or situations from another time, usually contemporary, in order to bestow some relevance onto the text, some universal resonance onto our time. However, semiotically and dramaturgically, it makes a mess more often than not: all those colliding, flapping bits, all those elements contradicting one another. A classic, according to Calvino, is a work that has never finished saying what it has to say. To that purpose, I believe the theatre maker(s) has every right to dismantle it completely, build onto whichever thread of relevance she wants to follow. Or, having no emotional connection, she can stage it as a piece of historical formalism, in the key of an era, even if this means to succumb, like MTC, to neotraditional nothingness. Present an ancient Greek tragedy as a detention camp dress-up, however, and it opens up more problems than it solves.

The Women of Troy is a very clear manifesto on the banality of evil, from the blood-stained blue carpets to the torturers in mismatched tracksuits, helped by the chorus which, whenever there's blood, launches into classical muzak in direct defiance of Adorno. The plight of Trojan women after the fall of Troy is shown in bright light, completely de-romanticized. However, that seems to be the extent of the production's conscious intent at saying something.

It is not quite clean if either of the two conflicting elements is meant to be alienating, and if either should provide emotional content. Perhaps we should recognise our shock and horror as we recognise the motifs of Abu Ghraib, and the lines of Euripides would then make this violence strange. If correct, this is simplistic logic: no emotional content travels with these visual quotations, because they are just that. Clean, empty quotations.

Susan Sontag was deeply concerned about the effect that existence in a culture shaped by a sustained reproduction, recycling, of imagery, had on morality. In Regarding the Pain of Others she considers the ecology of images created by the way photography tears fragments of reality out of their historical and geographical contexts, mixing them freely into a visual soup of pop, iconic, ready-to-use images, and compares it to the surrealist collage. This promiscuous aestheticisation of experience, in her words, “makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” It is not merely, thus, that being exposed to a pastiche of shocking images does not provide one with understanding of the complex ways in which suffering somewhere else exists in the same reality with our comfortable experience of regarding suffering on stage. More insidiously, being repeatedly exposed to shocking, brutal images hardens us against feeling shocked, feeling brutalized, by them. The repetition and the distance makes them feel less real, banalises.

Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, recently shown at MIAF, is a crystal-clear counterbalance to this approach. In an interview, Sussman said she merely tries to give an experience that’s meaningful to the audience, and this, I think, is the point of difference. Otherwise, the two works are incredibly similar: both visually modernize an ancient story depicting mass violence on women, barely if at all condemned, (certainly presented as inevitable), and both plunge deep into visual quotations, building their work as a collage. But, while Kosky condemns us to tourism in other people’s pain, Sussman stacks a precariously balanced tower of references to ideas, ideals, aspirations, desires, fears. There may be not a word in Sabine Women, it is nonetheless as intelligent as an essay. Wall Street masculinity, desire for the orientalised feminine, the classicist, fascist and modernist right-angle order, the polished muteness of women’s magazines, echo throughout this work that’s never safe, never polite, but always, always meaningful. Sussman does not quote ready-made images to tickle ready-made emotional responses: she is opening these images to scrutiny through displacement, and tracing our attachment to the dreams they cloak through historical alignment, finding lines of connection between seemingly disparate images. The effect is as riveting as The Women of Troy numbs.

The Rape of the Sabine Women.

As an antidote to superficial, iconic, recycled image of pain, Sontag demanded the explanatory, intellectual potential of words, arguing that war photography belongs to the newspapers, surrounded with words. I am willing to agree, if only because the banal numbed shock of a recycled image has no meaning except as an artefact of our culture, important only in context. Morally, the image of a prison guard photographing a hooded prisoner has as much weight as a discarded candy wrapper.

So, it could be that we should emotionally connect to the brilliance of Euripides's play, in a crisp new 'translation', and the brutal, industrial ugliness of the prison camp setting, of the violence and the muzak, should distance the human drama. In fact, Alison praises its effectiveness as modernised tragedy.

But is it?

In On Christian Theology, Rowan Williams writes: One point that needs making at once is that the tragic by definition deals with human limit; that is, with what is not to be changed. There is pain in the world that is, so to speak, non-negotiable. The suffering that has happened and cannot be made not to have happened (the irreversibility of time) is, in spite of various kinds of vacuous, insulting and brutal rhetoric, religious and political, unchangeably there for us. (…)

And then quotes Howard Barker’s 49 Asides for a Tragic Theatre, among which:
Tragedy resists the trivialization of experience, which is the project of the authoritarian regime…
In the endless drizzle of false collectivity, tragedy restores pain to the individual.

But is that what The Women of Troy does?

I wish I could agree. I wish I felt that human suffering, the suffering of women through wars, was dignified in this production. If it happens at all, it happens through Robyn Nevin’s masterful realisation of Hecuba, because she is able to both rage Greek, and be the broken prison-camp shell of a human being, and not appear a puppet. The two halves, the decorous Greek and the cheap documentary Abu Ghraib, are so incoherently plastered one onto another, the production asks us to make such leaps of imagination, aesthetic adjustments, from flicking phone cameras to polytheism, that one would need to be a tightly programmed robot to do it successfully. If Hecuba, switching from gorgeous, profound defeat, numb humiliation that has already become shame, as Primo Levi poignantly concluded, to making fierce Greek statements about honour and state, still stands as the emotional centre of the production, it is due to Nevin’s fantastic performance, not the internal logic of the piece. The three-headed chorus alternates between apathy, scrambling for food, and obtuse singing, functioning as a do-all backdrop, perhaps, but never as three human beings. And the representation of Helen as a sort of mafia wife is either outrageously inappropriate, or confirms my doubt that there is little empathy for the women of Troy in this production. Nothing can validate the black coat, the sunglasses, the hubris. A person condemned to death clings onto dear life. You need to not understand bare desire to survive to smother survival into grotesque.

Melita Jurisic and Robyn Nevin. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

This is, ultimately, what The Women of Troy does – it tries to not so much shock, as to nauseate. Repulse. It makes things grotesque, and that seems to be its ultimate goal. The grotesque of Cassandra’s rape, for example, is in the way it happens in a closed cupboard, and not in plain view. The image of Cassandra crawling out, underpants drenches in blood (certainly an excessive amount) around her ankles, is an image meant to disgust, not to make think, and certainly not to provoke compassion. It is not the shocking graphic revelation, but the choice of what’s shown, and what’s hidden, that makes it something other than a simple, bare witnessing of violence.

There are, as usual, elements that work, perhaps surprisingly. The planarity of body direction, used greatly in Navigator too, results in visual banality that’s quite intriguing, and is mirrored in effect by the back wall, a flat surface of filing cabinets and school lockers. The most effective device employed to physically show the precarious, exposed vulnerability of these women is to constantly make them balance on small cardboard boxes. There are at least two moments in which, perhaps unintentionally, a palpable emotional connection was established between the play and the audience. The entrance of Andromache, perhaps a side-effect of pregnancy and fine costume. The other was a song, the Balkans mourning song, perhaps because it finally dispensed with the sugary muzak to offer something more felt, something relating to the narrative. For the rest of the time, and this needs to be said, the audience tries hard, very hard, to empathise. If Hell is the absence of compassion, we spend the entire show trying to save ourselves.

Melita Jurisic. Photo by Tracey Schramm.

There were two intellectually interesting features. The choice of muzak, first, a random selection of madrigals, Bizet, Mozart, When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you. And second, the BBC Radio voice on the speaker, announcing the tortures to be bestowed upon each one of the royal daughters. This was not your normal psychotic German bureaucrat, administering genocide as a job description. This was the polished enunciation of an educated gentleman, explaining the options to Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and advising them not to try to find their own alternatives, because everything had been predicted and provided for already. This was one genuinely subversive element in the play: in my mind, it acknowledged that the concentration camps were invented in South Africa, that the holocaust was the product of the cultured, urbane mind, exterminating the world because it didn't fit in their little definition of civilization. It also, somewhat funnily, related to that strange way in which, I believe, Anglophones identify with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Both because they seem to see their drama as the basement to Shakespeare, and because they identify with the search for first principles, analytical approach to life, basic questions of cause and purpose. It was a moment of Sussman-level intelligence in an otherwise banal pastiche of borrowed imagery. And yet, I don't think it was intentional. The first thing the gentleman sitting next to me did, when the lights came up, was to mention the incomprehensible question of Germans and the concentration camps.

We came wanting to feel, and we were not allowed to. Alright. Had there been intellectual content instead, had we been accused of something other than insensitivity, perhaps the experience wouldn't have felt so empty. I went away from The Women of Troy initially only underwhelmed. But, the more I thought about it, the more this feeling turned to fury. The chorus of three women, dressed in white tights and singlets, their womanly silhouettes so crushingly humane, remind one of the most ordinary of women, who spend their time at home wearing quite the same clothes. Smeared with blood, bruised, electrocuted, this is the most potent image in the entire production. And Robyn Nevin's Hecuba, right in the middle of the play, reminded me very strongly of my grandmother, who survived her own war by collaborating with whoever marched through, and cleaned up behind the partisan army in the end, burying some German soldiers behind the house with the rest of her family. There is a real and deep history of women in war. Women suffer in wars, and suffer greatly: this is not an abstract subject. And yet, Kosky’s production seems to treat the suffering of women in war as simply yet another image to be subverted, a theme to refract through a visual prism, and confuse. It is deeply unfelt.

Why make these intimate revelations about women, make them wear home clothes and resemble living grandmothers? Why humiliate them if it isn't even in order to bring their tragedy closer? Undress them on stage in order to distance them from us, to prove a point about the banality of mass media? How demeaning, disrespectful and offensive to present them like this: dirty, violated, deconstructed and disjointed, forced to now sing, now shiver numbly, passively, now invoke gods. Interrupt their pain with changes of register, scale it up and down with grotesque. The worst plight of the women of Troy, in this production, is in the way they are not allowed their suffering.

Ian Kershaw, in Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, wrote that calmly observing the suffering inflicted on others would not be possible without apathy, yet apathy was the most common reaction to the proliferation of hate propaganda. If there is a way to avoid apathy, it is not through complicity with the promiscuous aesthetisation of experience. Not even in the theatre.

The Women of Troy, by Euripides, adapted by Tom Wright and Barrie Kosky, directed by Barrie Kosky. Designed by Alice Babidge, lighting by Damien Cooper, musician Daryl Willis, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Robyn Nevin, Melita Jurisic, Arthur Dignam, Natalie Gamsu, Queenie van de Zandt, Jennifer Vuletic, Patricia Cotter and Kyle Rowling, Giorgios Tsamoudakis and William Larkin. Sydney Theatre Company, presented by Malthouse Theatre, until November 22.

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Apocalypse and circular revenge: A View of Concrete & Family Stories

In Melbourne in 2006, Alison Croggon suspected she may not have liked Gareth Ellis's script of A View of Concrete half as much without Lauren Taylor's direction. In Sydney in 2008, I think she got it right. In Zagreb in 2005, I walked out of a derelict factory, seeing a nightmarish production of Family Stories, ready to call it one of the world's best plays. In Sydney in 2008, it is a curious experience to watch the same piece of writing deflated into a pancake. None of the two would have survived in the playtext marketplace had the Sydney productions been their first shot at glory. While the brilliance of the second play still saves the Ride On production, making it a pleasant night out, the decency of the Belvoir Downstairs staging doesn't camouflage the writing in the first as great, which its Malthouse premiere may just had done.

A View of Concrete; Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, Sydney, 2008.

Apart from marketplace chance, the two plays don't quite intersect, but they do give each other a little bum rub on their way. Both, despite being totally genre-deviant, come astonishingly close to apocalyptic drama. More specifically, both are concerned with the disruption of self in a world turned upside-down.

The self exists in partnership either with God or a philosophy that denies or accommodates Him. It is no wonder that, after every period of upheaval, the search for a new self, and a new ordering principle, begins. The entire history of the twentieth-century art has been a pendulum of discarded hopes. The fascisms of the first post-war period, as the strategy of adjustment to previously unimaginable violence was to appropriate it as something vast, irrational, yet intrinsic to human nature. The self, in this case, found solace in the superhuman agglutinated mass speaking straight to the natural order, the mass as the image of a single man. The absurdisms of the second post-war, on the other hand, in Bodin's words, replaced the 'theatre of character' with a 'theatre of situation'.
Protagonists, who understood the zeitgeist, stepped back into the chorus. To be a victim became the identity of the day, and the term guilt was unheard of.

However defeatist I may sound – and I am wary of implying too strong a nihilism in Srbljanovic's work, as she is a well-known political activist – there is a strong backbone of this sentiment in both plays. “It is not so much that the self needs a God, but that it cannot stand alone,” continues Bodin. In the absence of an extrinsic unifying principle, the uncertain self will react by trying to restore unity. This can happen through the acceptance of the rupturing element, as in Futurism, or through idyllic autism, as in Miranda July, or through the cathartic extrapolation of the shaky self onto the entire world. Apocalypse.

The methods of doing away with solid ground are multiple: social catastrophes (in particular extensive warfare, mutations, linguistic degradation, or great changes of the mores), natural disasters (usually coupled with social change), drugs, ESP and other forms of mental fiddling (such as in Phillip K Dick's work), or destabilization of foundational truths (such as Behold the Man, in which Christianity turns out to be one deranged man's idée fixe). In each case, the protagonist is taking down the whole set and chorus with her. There is more to it, the micro-reasons of the popularity of apocalyptic stories. Now mostly categorized as a sub-genre of SF, apocalypse is, of course, a quintessential Christian genre. The Apocalypse was written at the end of the first century to console the early believers during a time of persecution; a fairly typical imagined punishment of the oppressor, transferred into the future, and into the hands of an external figure. There are still traces of this sentiment in the glee with which we watch disaster films. However, the explosion of apocalyptic SF in the twentieth century takes it to a whole other level. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, not trivially, refers to it as the holocaust theme, speculating it may be the biggest sub-genre within SF, and charting its ascent from the end of WWI. Apocalypse or holocaust, it is a family quite different from dystopia, which presents fairly stable stages of degenerate societies, and is generally a critique of normative beliefs and ideals, taking them to their extreme, but logical end. Apocalypse is an image ordered by the logic of a distressed psyche. In other words, dystopia is political, while the apocalypse religious.

Neither of the two plays is a proper, cathartic apocalypse, although one wants to be, while the other looks it. A View of Concrete, by Gareth Ellis, written in Melbourne in the noughties, follows four characters as they drug themselves unconscious, their paranoias and manias escalate, and a fifth invisible character is conveniently killed at the point of climax, all on the backdrop of a world collapsing under environmental stress. The animals, we learn, are committing suicide, and there are ever fewer hours of daylight. However, while this play looks like it's playing by the book, a genuine apocalypse would require a genuine destabilising method. The environmental chaos isn't one, as it is only brought up in passing, as a kind of frill. Neither is there a true collapse of social order, described as your quite ordinary Saturday night in many a juvenile circle; if taking speed is meant to signal the end of the world, I live in the Middle East, not merely East Brunswick. And, most crucially, there has been no foundational truth shattered, because that would require introduction of abstract thought, which Australian dramatic writing has notorious problems with.

A View of Concrete; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, 2006.

There is an opening, though, towards the end of the play, when Jacquie shouts into the sky (which is where God normally lives), and I very roughly paraphrase: How do you live when there are no certain truths? There we go. That's our answer. The grand tragedy behind A View of Concrete is postmodernity.

Immediately the entire play is revealed to be a very inadequately dressed-up today. While everyone, not just the occasional bemused passer-by to Neighbours, has long been aware that the documentation of suburban existence doesn't really provide thrilling stories, there are more elegant ways to solve this problem. There are ways to add drama more subtle than putting the end of the world outside the door. The four distressed characters are now recognisable as very ordinary locals, and their paranoias and manias quickly revealed as rather trivial preoccupations of suburban adolescents. The girl dieting to shrink into a fairy, thus, becomes an ordinary infantilised female, escaping from sexual and intellectual maturity into a dream world of fairies, eating disorders and childhood memories, like countless young Australian women. The root of this behaviour being linked more to the sheltered suburban upbringing, and a particular method of child-rearing (pin-pointed in a blinkably missable moment when she takes enormous offense at being patronised), than to the tough existence of a holocaust survivor, linking her mania to drug abuse or social chaos is absolutely senseless. The same is true for the other three characters: suburban cynicism of children who don't believe in reality because they never fell off a tree masquerades as the tough nihilism of a drug dealer; the crisis of domesticated masculinity, finding outlet in the paranoid surveillance of the foreign, male neighbour, and the feminist crisis of control gained at the expense of controlability, structured power in a world unstructuring itself, are both real and worth exploring, yet are very clumsily stretched to be now drugged psychosis, now apocalyptic despair, now sexual deviation, now outrage over dead animals…

A View of Concrete; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, 2006.

I don't think this is spatio-temporal narcissism. I think it's the unwillingness, widely present in Australian writing, to get close to anything dark, uncomfortable, or evil. Suburban misery can stand on its own terms as long as the writer uses a sharp pencil, as A. M. Homes elegantly proves. The motivation for this end-of-the-world story is not to explore anything, but to add a bit of grit in what would otherwise be afternoon television.

Had this bucketful of small-minded problems been abandoned at the door, there would be no problem with A View of Concrete's style, which is that of soap opera. I always wanted someone to make a soap about a society completely alien to ours, with people endlessly plagued by small problems completely beyond our comprehension. But then it wouldn't be an apocalyptic story, but a dystopian soapie. As the play stands, without a single good thought, character development or narrative twist, just endless repetition of trivial intrigues, all we have is a linear murmur of quotidian behaviour, but taken excessively seriously.

Family Stories, on the other hand, is knee-deep in things dark, uncomfortable, and evil. Four children play house with dramatic endlessness, as the father tortures the family, the mother tortures the family, and the son or daughter usually kill them both. There are signs throughout the text placing the story in a particular spatio-temporal moment, Belgrade of the mid-1990s: references to political events, parroted newspeak, a particular kind of misogyny. On the other hand, Srbljanović isn’t doing realism, play-within-play: in the oft-quoted stage notes, adults need to play the children, with lines of dialogue that often jump register into complex adult thoughts, and appear, in each new game, with real scars from the previous death. All of the possible readings that Nataša Govedić, Croatian theatre critic, offers could be as valid: on the one hand, the game of house as infernal punishment, with children living through their crimes in infinite repetition, not unlike Tantalus; on the other, the dead adults channelling the trauma of their children, themselves infantilised as a self-protection from social responsibility. The play opens with Nadežda, the retarded child, playing in the sand pit, and closes with her confession/demonstration of killing her parents with an accidentally activated bomb. As she tells the story, she blows up the set and the children, suggesting that the whole play is told from her perspective, as expiation or biography. Her delirious monologue is one part apology, one part farewell note, and one part a “shattering inventory of children’s sins” (Govedić):

I won't ever again . . . sit at the table with dirty hands, dog-ear the pages of books, mix up the newspaper, shout slogans, ask for money, cry when I hurt myself, tear holes in my stockings, fall in love, spit out the soup, take money out of your wallet, scrape my knees, nibble on the marmalade, cheat in school, talk about politics, act sick when Papa belches, demand my inheritance, ask for help, want my own house, plan my future, wish for my own life, have my own opinions, seek progress, happiness, freedom, and peace, grow up, marry, and have children . . .

Family Stories; a Serbian production (?).

Family Stories is the mirror-image of in-yer-face theatre, particularly similar to Sarah Kane’s Cleansed for the way it interweaves domestic cruelty with external violence. However, while in-yer-face counted on numerous devices to destabilise parameters of realism, take God down, from extreme graphic violence to different apocalypse methods, in Srbljanović’s Serbia of the 1990s normality is an atavism the society barely remembers. There is no need to invent complicated catastrophes (they’re out there), are there is no need to potentiate the disruption of self (staying sane is already hard enough). The symmetry is real, though, the connection not merely invented. In-yer-face was born out of the guilty neurosis of Western Europe facing the global collapse of values – which resulted in wars in less stable points, such as ex-Yugoslavia – from the position of relative comfort.

Srbljanovic's play, in a sense, completely ignores volume to focus on the line. Not having to explain, to invent, or to justify the surrounding madness, she merely describes the effects. Instead of solid, tactile bodies of characters, plot, context, issues, all we have are the joints, the points of intersection, of friction. Like a short story that rushes through the immense on a couple of pages by illuminating the points of highest pressure, so Family Stories brings out the brittle, hard edges of a society. This is artifice at its most chiselled splendid (because the line is what art starts with, yet lines don't exist in real life). The transformation of the child mind that Family Stories paints is so extreme that it is near-abstract in contrast to normal life, and it can truly stand for things as abstract as hell.

For that reason, staging Family Stories with less geopolitical solidity may bring it closer to the Australian eye. Staging it as a Beckettian docudrama, which is what Ride On did in Griffin Theatre in Sydney recently, flattens the big questions into a simple shock (as reported from the program notes: “Wake up!”), and alienates the themes rather than bringing them closer. As long as we can see recognisable children on stage reacting to a set of events we do not fully recognise, in a foreign country with a name and language, our safe distance allows us to feel, primarily, compassion for the tortured children. And this is one of the themes, yes, childhood gone wrong. However, Nadežda’s closing repentance suggests that Family Stories is an exorcism of hatred towards one’s flawed parents. This is something immediately recognisable to Srbljanović’s domestic audience, living in a world where all families are unhappy the same way (as she said in an interview, we are a generation “that cannot set their parents on fire, but cannot live with them either”), but perhaps a more complicated thing for an Australian audience to grasp, already working through a barrage of confusing signs.

Family Stories; Csiky Gergely Theatre, Kaposvár, Hungary 2003.

Instead, the simple naturalism of RideOn’s production turns it into an apocalyptic story, with somewhat unfortunate consequences. It is certainly a more successful apocalypse than A View of Concrete, however reluctantly: the self is genuinely transformed. But the non-identification (fortunately tempered by adult cast) appears to shift the Australian reaction towards compassion and pity, not unlike that type of near-pornographic child-abuse fiction that seems to blossom these days (as exemplified by Kevin Jackson’s review). Apocalyptic fiction, of course, is pornographic by default: but there is a difference between the religious pornography of the exploration of the self, and the smug imaginative violence over another being. Just like the early Christians were inflicting eternal suffering on their Roman prosecutors by reading The Apocalypse, Sydneysiders could punish little children in Belgrade.

More curiously, it also becomes an unsettling, Beckettian parody of children’s television, a dark side of normative family happiness as the mass media would want. But the universal darkness of Srbljanović’s text is compacted, tamed. The abstract, again, is lost.

Family Stories; Griffin Stablemates, Sydney, 2008.

Is there a conclusion? A View of Concrete is not that great, and Family Stories not that bad. Both are done a disservice by being staged as relatively straight theatre, because the delivery changes ever so slightly the message. What the latter loses in profundity, the former doesn’t gain in credibility. It is not a failure of craft, not unless we’re viewing direction as something smarter than pottery. Just a failure of Sydney independent theatre to make magic. Which may be read as a religious complaint on my side, but then, where would theatre be without religion?

A View of Concrete. MPower Youth Productions. Written by Gareth Ellis. Directed by Laura Scrivano. With Andrew Bibby, Katie Fitchett, Alexandria Steffensen and Damian Walshe-Howling. Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, Sydney. 5-23 November 2008.

Family Stories: Belgrade. A Ride On Theatre and Griffin Stablemates production. Written by Biljana Srbljanović. Translated by Bojana Novaković. Directors Robert Kennedy and Bojana Novaković. Producers Esti Regos, Joanna Fishman & Bojana Novaković. With Richard Gyoerffy, Tanya Goldberg, Brendan May & Phaedra Nicolaidis. Design Simone Romaniuk. Lighting Verity Hampson. Sound Design Max Lyandvert. Griffin Theatre, Sydney. 18 October – 8 November 2008.

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We will never talk about this.

1. THE SUBMERGED AND THE SAVED

I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion of which I have become conscious little by little, reading the memoirs of others and reading mine at a distance of years. We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who have, those who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return to tell about it, or have returned wordless; but they are the 'Muslims', the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.
– Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati

2. GOOD INTENTIONS

Now, anyone who has sufficient experience of human affairs knows that the distinction (the opposition, a linguist would say) good faith/bad faith is optimistic and illuminist, and is all the more so, and for much greater reason, when applied to men such as those just mentioned. It presupposes a mental clarity which few have, and which even these few immediately lose when, for whatever reason, past or present reality arouses anxiety or discomfort in them.
– Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati

3. MEDUSA

Théodore Géricault – Le Radeau de la Méduse

In mid-afternoon on July 4th, 1816, the French frigate Medusa ran aground on the Arguin Bank, off the west coast of Africa. Without enough lifeboats to evacuate almost 400 travellers, a raft, 20 metres in length and 7 metres in width, was quickly built. On July 5th the evacuation of the frigate started, 146 men and one woman boarding the raft tugged by the lifeboats crammed with the remaining passengers. Even only half-loaded, the raft wasn't buoyant enough, with passengers standing waist-deep in the water. Perhaps because this made it difficult to tow the raft, after about 15 kilometres the ropes were cut, and the raft abandoned, supplied with only little water, little food, and a lot of wine.

Fights rapidly broke out between the officers and passengers on one hand, and the sailors and soldiers on the other. On the first night, 20 men were killed or committed suicide. Dozens died either in fighting to get to the centre of the raft, the only place safe in the stormy weather that ensued, or because they were washed overboard by the waves. Rations dwindled. By the fourth day there were only 67 left alive on the raft, and some resorted to cannibalism. On the eighth day, the fittest began throwing the weak and wounded overboard. When the raft was found by chance on July 19 only 15 of the passengers had remained alive. Five of the survivors died within the next few days.

On August 27, a ship reached the “wreck” of the Medusa. It hadn't sank, and wouldn't sink for another few months.

Méduse's surgeon Henri Savigny and geographer Alexander Corréard released their account (Naufrage de la frégate la Méduse) of the incident in 1817. It went through five editions by 1821 and was also published in an English translation.

4.

He who has seen the truth will forever remain inconsolable. Saved is only he who has never been in danger. A ship might even appear, now, on the horizon, and speed here on the waves to arrive a second before death and take us away, and have us return alive, alive — but this would not save us, really. Even if we ever found ourselves ashore somewhere again, we shall never again be saved.
– Alessandro Baricco, Oceano mare

5. SHAME.

That many (including me) experienced ‘shame,’ that is, a feeling of guilt during the imprisonment and afterward, is an ascertained fact confirmed by numerous testimonies. It is absurd, but it is a fact. […] On a rational plane, there should not have been much to be ashamed of, but shame persisted nevertheless, especially for the few bright examples of those who had the strength and possibility to resist. […] It is a thought that had only touched us then, but that returned later: you too perhaps could have, certainly should have.

Self-accusation is more realistic, or the accusation of having failed in terms of human solidarity. Few survivors feel guilty of having deliberately damaged, robbed, or beaten a companion. Those who did so (the kapos, but not only them) block out the memory. By contrast, however, almost everybody feels guilty of having omitted to offer to help.

Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another? And in particular, of a man more generous, more sensitive, more useful, wiser, worthier of living than you? It is a proposition you cannot exclude: you examine your memories… no, you do not find obvious transgressions, you haven't supplanted anyone, you haven't hit (but would you have had the strength?), you didn't accept duties (but you weren't offered…), you haven't stolen anyone's bread; still, you cannot exclude it. It is no more than a supposition, indeed the shadow of a suspicion: that each man is his brother's Cain, that each one of us (but this time I say 'us' in a much vaster, indeed, universal sense) has usurped his neighbor's place and lived in his stead. It's a supposition, but it gnaws; it's deeply hidden like a moth; you can't see it from outside but it gnaws and bites.

I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is, in fact, killed. The “saved” of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the “gray zone,” the spies. It was not a clear-cut rule (there weren't and aren't any clear-cut rules in human matters), but it was a rule nonetheless. I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died.
– Primo Levi, I sommersi e i salvati

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Liminal (Theatre and Performance): Oedipus – a poetic requiem

A version (with rather off formatting of Ted Hughes) has appeared in Laneway Magazine.

Liminal (Theatre and Performance) is a strange beast in the Melbourne theatre eco-system. In this city, where most theatre is produced for free and funding is at best flimsy, independent theatre-making is a long session of musical chairs, and a person who can get a large number of people to collaborate for a longer period of time something of a rarity. Another rare thing in this city, sadly but logically, is an independent theatre practitioner past a certain age: while we certainly have established mainstream theatre artists, there is simply not enough security of livelihood on the theatre margin to sustain long-term artistic inquiry.

As Alison Croggon has noted, Liminal, with their sense of collective, long-term collaboration, defined aesthetics and a clear sense of tangent and purpose, are comparable to the visionary ensembles that are lushly funded in, let's say, Europe, and heralded as creative laboratories, those raising the roof beams for the future. Ariadne Mnouchkine comes to mind, or Needcompany. In Melbourne, needless to mention, this is not quite the case, and Liminal tend to teach their devoted audience much about the suburban architecture of Melbourne, as we wander the back streets of Abbotsford or Brunswick, looking for the right warehouse or private house where their performances take place.

Based on Ted Hughes's poetically mighty re-working of Seneca's Oedipus, this is a production of which completely contradicting things can be said with total plausibility. It has a grand vision, fantastic ideas, excellent human and textual material, powerful execution, and yet it fails to work the way one expects it to. There is a touch of too-much and a touch of not-quite: velvety enunciation and somewhat heavy-metal make-up give Oedipus a little bit of easy slickness it doesn't need, while choreographic and vocal syntony collapses in moments that wouldn't matter if the performance didn't strive for microscopic precision. Liminal makes theatre full of sound and image, minutely choreographed motion and voice: to experience it in a suburban garage, in a glitchy execution with props collapsing, video and sound occasionally malfunctioning, fails the desired total immersion. The tight intimacy of the space works, and doesn't: a larger space may have relieved Oedipus of some of its visceral potency, but some airiness could have sharpened our senses, slightly irritated as they were by the physical discomfort of crowdedness, of feet pressed against backs, shoulders rubbing, imperfect angles. Hugely ambitious, Oedipus burns under its own magnifying glass.

Partially, though, there may be an internal failure of rhythm and intent. There is not so much a sense of meandering, as a lack of progression until it kicks into the splendid end. Oedipus starts in high-strung tone, and keeps it, unwavering, until the very end. The result, rather than creating horrorific tension, creates monotony. While four Jocastas toss and turn in the agony of loss, blame and fault, the audience, in minute steps, gets bored.

But if I focus so much on the shortcomings, it's because Oedipus is, overall, stuff of giants. Classical tragedy is already thick with re-telling, with memory, but in this version only detritus of the original events remains. Any recognisable characters are shed for a mask of Oedipus and a chorus of four women in black, who less narrate than reminisce, re-live, mourn and wail. Everything has already happened, and on stage there will be only inconsolable mourning, only senseless rage and self-pity. Spitting mouthfuls of exquisite text – a text with a fine pedigree indeed – they bathe their bodies, voices, and the entire black box in gorgeous monochrome film, Ivanka Sokol's flickering shadows of cloudy skies, streets, woods, faces. Just like in their previous work, Mishima's The Damask Drum, there is a sense of reiterative, traumatic, short-circuited memory in these confused blurs of film, the orchestrated imprecision with which they slide up and down bodies reduced to black dress and white skin, white shadows of trees in the black box. Physical movement is nearly perfectly directed: four women merge together and fall apart, assuming distinct voices only to drown into a writhing, wriggling mass of lean limbs and wild hair. And the text, broken between mouths and personae, is the most exquisite piece of writing I have heard on stage, angular and translucent and raucous and spiky.

At the very end, Claire Nicholls has five minutes of most accomplished theatre one is likely to see in Melbourne this year. In a move characteristic of the production, a nameless black-dressed woman repeats a monologue of a slave, recounting how Oedipus blinded himself. Only a faint carbon-copy of an event, yet brought to life with such visceral urgency – as she screams, she is helpless, senseless chilling despair;

Suddenly he began to weep          everything that had been
Torment suddenly it was sobbing       it shook his whole
Body and he shouted                  is weeping all I can give
Can't my eyes give any more        let them go with their
Tears          let them go      eyeballs too      everything
Out            is this enough for you you frozen gods of
Marriage     is it sufficient            are my eyes enough

From this point on we are in theatre heaven, although it required a jump-start. And here is the problem. While flawed, imperfect, the act of critique becomes hard when what Liminal does is systematically rare, rarely systematic, and totally unsupported. And when such senseless acts of beauty go unnoticed, in Brunswick garages.

Melbourne Fringe Festival. Oedipus – a poetic requiem. Liminal (Theatre and Performance). Director, dramaturge and set designer: Mary Sitarenos. Performers: Ivanka Sokol, Jo Smith, Georgina Durham and Claire Nicholls. Moving image: Ivanka Sokol. Masks: James McAllister. Photography: Sarah Enticnap. 72 Edward Street, Brunswick (garage), Sept 30 – Oct 12.

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Batsheva Dance Company: Three & MAX. Or: ljudi su ljudima neprijatelji.

1. Baroness Bethsabee/Bathsheba/Batsheva de Roschild, and Martha Graham, jointly established Batsheva Dance Company in 1964. Graham trained, Bethsabee funded.

2. Ohad Naharin, Batsheva's choreographer since 1990, created Gaga, his own technique, not because of a back injury, but thanks to it. It has been variously described as awareness through movement, reaching emotion through your physicality, and the other way around.

3. The dancers are very good.

Three.

4. First is a philanthropist, second the century's most important choreographer (according to the Time magazine), third a therapy of movement, fourth a tripartite omnibus (beauty, nature, existence), and fifth a military drill.

Waltz with Bashir, another Israeli piece of art that reached our island recently, despite a world of difference has the same underground rivers running. By digging and poking, it opens up to examination an occasionally malfunctioning yet stable collective mind, laying naked the strange and complex ways in which we adapt to and absorb cumulative shocks of war. As I have mentioned elsewhere, tragedy rarely manifests itself in everyday life with overt gesture. Shock, violence, terror, chaos instead wash over the mind and the body, forcing them, more often than not, into a pragmatic reconstitution. Over and over again, Batsheva made me contemplate the effect of nation-wide military service on a culture; of constant preparation for a war.

Meeting Israeli boys and girls of my age always left a strange, but strong, impression on me. How beautiful they were, with their big eyes, with their freckles and their bony, elastic physique! The most beautiful, her name, Anat, of just the right type of angular grace, looked like your typical mongrel goddess, all blonde curls and sunburnt freckles, until rumours spread that she had been trained as a tank operator; a military specialist. They were like sunny winters, distant people, unwilling to smile too widely, unwilling to be impressed, unwilling to say too much. They always seemed wrapped around a central backbone of internal discipline, teeth clenched even when they were having fun, which they were often and with deep investment. Nothing was ever light with these kids, nothing was taken seriously, but there was a considered principle hidden in this cynicism. And yet there was a certain spring of step that marked them, unmistakably, as boys and girls, not men and women.

Batsheva dance like nearly abstract bodies in a war zone.

MAX.

It is not too far from modern ballet, unless, as Ditta Rudle said in Die Presse, we promote it into contemporary dance on the basis of having brains. With such clean precision, long lines of movement, the bedrock of this dance is clearly modern American. But the atemporal and placeless modern American looks somehow juvenile, untainted with life experience, with joys and sorrows, compared to the hard, solid and world-weary Batsheva. While the choreography is often somewhat inconclusive, the sheer quality of the movement is something new to me, and to this country.

It is a male choreography: male dancers are better across the board. The line of inquiry is not intellectual as much as abstractly emotional. Every limb is thrown straight from the stomach.

Batsheva's is a body trying to break into figuration, shed its abstract skin: abstracted by modernism, by dance, by war and by discipline. Each member of the Batsheva ensemble has the straight back and the poise, the inner centeredness of a tango dancer (tango being an honourable acceptance of neverending pain). There is a strong internal conflict in the movement of the warm human body inside and the mechanical shell of choreography that wraps it, stretches it, makes it leap, curl, bend. But the conflict is truly internal. There appears to be no rebellion of the body against the shell, just a wilful acceptance of the drill, less disciplined than simply sober, pessimistic. More than yielding, the body absorbs the hard lines of movement – and there is no particular distinction between men and women in either of the two pieces; duets are conversations of emotional equivalents – turns violent blows into learning. And when it manages to break out of abstraction, it secretes no gesture, nothing but direct, masculine emotion, raw, unstructured and frightening the way male emotion always is.

To call these two shows humanist may be an unreasonable stretch: apart from a military type of camaraderie, there was nothing that suggested any values, just a brown, earthy understanding of what humans are capable of. Enlightened strain. I would call it medieval Catholic for the sheer pathos of accepting suffering, minus the melodrama, were it not so Israeli. I would call it expansive if the word didn't contain a faint fragrance of thinness, which is not the case here. Three and Max are both dense dances, concentrated in the middle the way expansive, sharp movement rarely is.

Three.

Three is uneven in a very consistent way. The first of the short segments, Bellus, performed on Glen Gould's 'Goldberg' Variations by Bach, is conceptually the soundest, dancing around the idea of beauty by producing a harmonious dialectic between Pretty and Strong. The second, Hommus, 'nature', is compositionally the most successful: women only, in 13 short sequences of homogeneous movement, get to every corner of the stage in counter-clockwise motion. Their synchronised bodies are pulled and pushed by an internal clash, absorbing the shock, but the earthiness is never lost to mechanical violence. Female dancers, by and large, are not as impressive as the males, which risks making this section dull, but instead gives it room to breathe, and a delicately covert softness that makes this giving in of the body extremely moving. The final piece, Seccus, on experience, is the least coherent theatre. While the dance vocabulary is the most impressive, it often feels like a vapid showcase of abilities, a slap in the face meant to impress before the finale. There appear glimpses of slowly accumulating didacticism: in a camp, tango-sprinkled male duet that had none of the nude, raw beauty I've come to associate with male duets; Christ-like gesture of pointing fingers at skinny dancer ribs; and a triumphal proof that men can make vaginas too. It never resorts to academic or cute, no, but does create a sort of eisteddfod that didn't sit very well with the Australian audience. (American critics, as a note on cultural disagreement, loved Seccus much more than the spare, simple Hommus).

MAX.

MAX, in comparison, is Spartan. A single block of camouflage-coloured movement, it runs around a bit less, always a little bit surer of what it's doing. It is even less dressed than Three: a lot of it to no musical accompaniment, most only to spoken word in an unintelligible language, a combination of Arabic murmur and Latinate resonance (composed and spoken by Ohad Naharin himself, credited under the name Maxim Waratt). The theme, this time foregrounded, is the subtle, insidious terror of the collective over the human body, but there is more than simplistic individualism in Nasarin's treatment: the brotherly collective of Batsheva (and not, by any means, sisterly; with an unsentimental precision of a war-harassed organism) finds strength as much as strain in collective discipline. At one point, progressive numbering forces differently grouped dancers into series of progressive moves, building little stories through dictation. At another, a soundscape of industrial noises is transcribed into individual dancers as instruments: yet instead of registering violation, bodies appear to embrace the heavy-hitting beat as a source of power.

I have seen the same sober discipline, the same bleak yet intent acceptance of deep movement, without a hint of frill, in Dalija Acin's dance (another dancer in a war-torn place). It is grounded dance. Not sad, not angry. Dance coming from one's centre of gravity. Rather un-Australian. From modern to contemporary, everything that Australian dance has picked up (frills, objects, tweeness, cocooness, warm humour, surfaces, stories) is absent in Batsheva's heavy, hard-edged movement.There is nothing like this in Australia, and there won't be for a while. We are not a war zone after all. We don't dance with death, when we dance.

Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Batsheva Dance Company: Three. Choreography Ohad Neharin. Costume design Rakefet Levy. Lighting design Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi). Sound design Ohad Fishof. Music JS Bach, Brian Eno, and others. The Arts Centre, State Theatre, Oct 10-11.

MAX. Choreography Ohad Neharin. Music Maxim Waratt. Costume design Rakefet Levy. Lighting design Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi). Music Production & Mix Ohad Fishof. Sound design Moshe Shasho. The Arts Centre, State Theatre, Oct 12-13.

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