My realisation at the end of 2007 was not dissimilar to what my dear nomadic friend Shif wrote me from Europe, around the centre of the year. I thought I'd be where it's all happening, she more-or-less-said, but instead I feel like I'm missing out on everything exciting happening in Melbourne. Looking backwards, looking through the notes in my notebooks, but, most significantly, looking through the European press and blognotes, I feel the same. Melbourne has had a remarkable year in theatre. (Although, to pursue honesty before a nice poetic logic, Shiffy was living in Italy, the land of non-theatre, at the time.)
So what has it been? It's been a year of dance, particularly dance re-runs. It was a year when I missed nothing I could afford not to miss, and was rewarded with a wide and deep introduction to Lucy Guerin, a revision of Chunky Move's deliciously macabre Glow, and a whole range of other Australian dance, ranging from the collaborative Tense Dave, through the clever camp of Malthouse-presented Brindabella to the often glitchful, but nonetheless exciting Fringe pieces (such as Simple Life by Think C.O.N.T.E.M.P.T., where the ending to the show was decided by an audience poll). An entire Merce Cunningham program was a present to the city by Kristy Edmunds for the annual Arts Fest; from the initial impression of Space Invaders in lycra we graduated to a mass standing ovation for Sigur-Ros-fuelled ending of the Festival. Honour Bound, a piece of dance full of angst and concern (although somewhat didactical), visited Melbourne in 2006 and spent 2007 touring Europe. The most significant dance event, in my personal opinion, however, was Sankai Juku's Kagemi, finally in Melbourne; pity I am not qualified to say anything about butoh that goes beyond the bomb, the gravity and the both feet on the ground.
Speaking of physical theatre, circus was a bit let-down: nothing exciting has happened unless we count the re-staging of Di Vino for the Arts Festival and the entire Northcote Town Hall becoming a circus hub for the Fringe Festival (getting Daniel Rabin a ticket to Edinburgh '08). With Acrobat touring Elsewhere, the most highly anticipated show for this circus-aficionado, Candy Butchers' existentialist Bucket of Love, wasn't quite sufficient. However, while in 2006 it seemed physical theatre was the only kind that Australia could make with success, this year proved me wrong. The so-called 'straight theatre' was stronger than ever. And I mean straight. Mixed media seemed on their way out; there was much less of random puppets with people, music with images, dancing while playing music. While such hotchpotch theatre-making often simply camouflages a lack of substance (as in My Darling Patricia's Politely Savage, all shiny surfaces and mysterious atmosphere), it also produced 2006's best show, the Lally Katz extravaganza Slanting Into the Void.
Nothing as overwhelming was seen in 2007. Delightful puppetry was present in the 2006 revival Apples and Ladders, and puppets were tossed around in VCA's The Perjured City, but nothing on the scale of the 2006 mix-and-match carnival was seen. This was the year, it seemed, in which instead of the actors, the techniques and the audio-visual landscape of the stage, it was the space and time of the performance that was explored, particularly the space and the time as experienced by the audience. The form was well-poked and the thoughts were well-articulated, with many happy outcomes.
Anna Tregloan, as the artist-in-the-Malthouse-residence, put on the single most exciting thing of 2007, the installation-performance Black. Black was a nightmare staged, a 3-hour loop of images, sounds, movement, and four people performing fragments of desire, sadness, needs and fears. If we accept Barthes' off-handed remark that modern poetry attempts to regain an infra-signification, a pre-semiological state of language, transform the sign back into meaning, then this is where theatre came closest to poetry, in Melbourne in 2007. Ranters Theatre's infinitely subtle Holiday was a dissection opera made entirely of empty time. All white light and white noise, it may have been the purest, most honest confrontation with human existence one was likely to see on Melbourne stage this year. Chambermade continued doing their thing with an opera version of infotainment TV, in plainsong and with some excellent music. The last show to get an honorary mention, and here I am surprising myself, is the winner of Fringe '07, the Sydney theatre morceau Gifted and Talented: although in terms of craft it wasn't the most polished thing out there, it weaved a story that went through a loop of impeccable emotional logic, from ambitious mothers through Kath&Kim to Guantanamo Bay, ending in a fury of rock Esteddfod. The way in which these three girls – because this was a show by three girls perhaps younger than me – manipulated time and space of the performance was simply breath-taking.
It was the year in which the major theatre company on this end of the continent, MTC, offering nothing but disappointment. Apart from the already sufficiently lauded Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the overrated Thom Pain, the MTC program appeared sad and useless like light beer. (There is no reason to expect anything to change in 2008.)
Melbourne International Arts Festival, to use its current name, has finally been classified as serious and dignified by
Australia is cursed by this attachment to the middle way, by the obsession of doing everything Proven Right at the same time: the government both wants a high-profile arts festival that brings the tourists and the dollars and the image of a civilised, sophisticated country, and a budget non-committed to funding those dole-bludging, free-market-adverse, champagne-socialist, inner-city art types that certainly aren't part of any working family. (State Government could learn from its own roads department that results are achieved only with sustained passion to a cause.)
And while on the topic of money, I wouldn't know if Malthouse Theatre has been showered as it should have been, but the ticket sales are certainly up. As the actual major theatre company, the lighthouse of Where Things Should Go, Malthouse was standardly good, with a string of well-made plays (Exit the King, Criminology) and a whole program, well-thought-through, of guest performances (The Pitch, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, The Eisteddfod). The tactic it seemed to have briefly adopted in 2006, that of putting on a great range of monodramas, has mercifully given way to a much more astute combination of near-blockbuster collaborations (with Company B in Exit the King, Adelaide Festival in the 2008 hopeful Moving Target), which combines splitting costs with extended nation-wide touring, local indy gems, and extracurricular activities.
All the theatres that we in Melbourne pathetically consider medium-sized, such as Red Stitch (which finally moved out of The Shack and got an indoor toilet) or Theatre@Risk, were sticking to a theme, a successful model in their 2007 programming, presenting an even selection of somewhat uninspiring shows; or, to be more honest, not as inspiring as the previous years. VCA, on the other hand, has wrestled out wider attention with its carefully curated strings of student shows: from big and ambitious (the infinite Perjured City by the crazy Cixious) to the classical triptych with a directorial twist (in which King Lear met reality TV under Brian Lipson, film kissed theatre in Yes based on Yes, and Nora didn't walk out of A Doll's House). Student productions are a rare treat in this city for those among us who love big casts, reasonable budgets and more than one act (even if the uniform youth of the cast still elbows the eye).
The most exciting theatre in Melbourne, as usual, happened in rented garages, alleyways, at the back or on top floors of pubs, and in the still drafty, still underused Meat Market. Fortyfivedownstairs gave a room to the wonderful Spring Awakening, Gasworks hosted the quietly brilliant Brisbane-duet One More Than One, Black Lung didn't quite sweep the Fringe floor, but nonetheless gave us the best independent oeuvre in 2007, the magnificent Antidote, and La Mama ended the year with the excellent Kreutzer Sonata and Apples and Ladders (that had previously been staged at the Malthouse). The way these crafty people put on extraordinarily beautiful little shows in most disparate venues, word of mouth goes around, people show up, nobody makes any profit, but nobody makes any loss either, is just mind-blowing to someone like me, naïvely accustomed to the bickering and bile of cushy government support, thickly ensembled theatre houses as far as eye can see, connections and positions and spiderwebs that shall not be dismantled by trying to do something different. By this I don't mean to say government funding is a bad thing that results in stale theatre. Just that I have nothing but admiration for indy theatre in Melbourne, which seems to simmer with creativity, passion and enterprise fuelled by apparently nothing.
The most consistently inspired program, as usual, seems to be the City of Melbourne's Arts House: this year it gave us small metal objects, Ranters Theatre's Holiday, Sara Juli's traumatic Money Conversation and Lucy Guerin's Love Me among others, all excellent shows, challenging both in form and ideas; thoughts and turns of phrase. Receiving the Arts House's theatre program still regularly has me excited right in front of the mailbox.
In terms of scandals and debates, it was a quiet year. Kristy Edmunds was not publicly attacked for mounting yet another Arts Fest without Sir Ian McKellen and the Royal Shakespeare Company, perhaps because RSC was brought over for another occasion and performed the allegedly disappointing Lear. Bell Shakespeare ventured into Gogol territory in the biggest theatrical shame of the year, which was predictably hailed as an unqualified success. There were no funding scandals like in Croatia, appointment scandals like in Sydney, or even debates on what theatre should look like, like in the UK. Even if the play should still be made well, you wouldn't have known it from the strangely unargumentative press. The reviewing standard has gone up a bit, mainly due to Ms Theatrenotes jumping on The Australian ship, and Esoteric Rabbit jumping off the Australian Stage. To sum it up: nothing shocked, nothing outraged, no mass abandonment of the auditorium was recorded. Hopefully next year will be better.
I, meanwhile, am left quite satisfied with the results. I have missed, alright, all the Belgian dance/performance out there, the Ivana Sajko threesome in Zagreb and the new Biljana Srbljanović play. But plenty of good theatre has seen this city nonetheless and, quite honestly, I think that in global terms Melbourne is probably as fortunate as them liveable places get.