I'm not sure about you, but I went to Two Faced Bastard expecting something very similar to what I got: something fun and by no means unwatchable, but simplistic, shallow and pseudo-cerebral, not really committed to exploring in depth the ideas (or rather idea, for there is only one) it professed to be exploring.
I only expected courage. I expected an idea taken to its logical conclusion. To me, Two Faced Bastard was an indecisive smear on a big white canvas left mostly untouched. On the dance side, I would say, my side got the full picture in the first part of the show. So much that I wondered if it hadn't been designed, misdesigned, from there. Strangely, the faint panel discussion voicing over Stephanie Lake's dancing never felt like it could stand alone as anything other than muffled background to movement. It sounded distracted, casual, glib in a swampy way, as if the panelists too were more focused on watching Stephanie: meandering in and out of listening, I never felt I was missing on much.
There was not more than a hint of extemporaneousness to the Brian Lipson I saw, although I allow I may have only seen patches of him, coming and going as he was. There was a tightly choreographed affectation of chaos, interrupting a line of tightly choreographed movement which, by not pretending to be spontaneous and free, seemed more genuine. What I enjoyed instead was the overlap of movement and non-movement, performance and not, particularly because, unlike virtually everything in Bastard, it had an effortless, surprising grace: the transition between Stephanie doing warm-ups (Stephanie the unstructured body) and performing (body as concentrated machine); and each time another performer would walk into the dance from the panel discussion – I wondered what it looked like from the panel side. This was virtually the only moment I was curious about the other side..
Alison has described the side I was on as the side of language, which I think is a little disingenuous. Sure, the cast spoke more on my side, but they also threw their bodies around a lot. Ours was the side of physical comedy. (I was reminded almost constantly of Donald O'Connor and the 'Make 'Em Laugh' sequence of Singin' in the Rain, surely the secret root of much contemporary dance, or least that strand of it which involves flopping around violently on the floor.) Maybe this is why I have been told by others who sat on your side that the laughter coming from ours made them jealous in the same way that your applause made us jealous of you. I was content on my side until then. I didn't feel like I was missing out on too much until your side applauded at the end of the first dance.
Take into account, however, that my side was silent, and yours almost perpetually noisy. Our side may have been all elusive mystique, but you were the tedious noisy neighbour. To us, it was the side of language. Certainly of noise.
The point is this: we weren't missing out for being on the so-called wrong side of the curtain. To wit: one of the most jarring moments in the first half of the production, before everyone starts changing sides, comes when two of the dancers turn Brian's long and stumbling spiel from the beginning of the piece, the one about introducing chaos into the performance, into a perfectly synchronised duet, transforming even his ums and ahs, his stutters and seemingly ad-libbed asides, into movement. And you're retrospectively thrown by how perfectly Lipson played the monologue earlier, not to mention by the precision of the duet itself.
What displeased me, though, was the clear affectation of these supposed breaks in the performance, at least on my side: dancers did not say anything meaningful, and didn't really introduce chaos into choreography either. Lipson running around and interrupting the show was a symbol of rupture, not a real one; and so was the panel discussion, and so was the call to the audience to choose sides, and so was the war that followed. It was almost a parody of theatrical deconstruction, going through the empty motion.
But while its intellectual games were simplistic – and we agree on that much at least – the production's effect on the audience was nonetheless genuine: it frustrated them. It was a show designed to frustrate, and to this extent was entirely successful. The show's title was not a title, but rather an accurate description: it was a two-faced bastard, this show, an adulterer, a backstabber. For all its unwillingness to probe its operations too deeply, it did generate a certain jealous longing for off-stage space, for the greener grass of the other side. And it did so very effectively.
I wish I had been frustrated the same way. Frustration is a beautifully genuine feeling to get in the theatre. On my side, it was all too pretty, too choreographic. Cute and totally predictable scenes on a string don't add up to a show. More often than not, the logic of the sequences was skin-deep: when Vince suddenly bursts onto our side of the curtain to long for Stephanie, it merely signals an escape from a narrative slump. When, later, Michelle dances and lip-syncs all wrapped in white paper – you wouldn't have been able to see this – Vince and Stephanie are suddenly annoyed at her presence, which is frankly inconsequential and doesn't relate to any other interaction these three characters have had – at least on my side.
But in feeling there was a certain inconsequentiality to Vince and Stephanie's annoyance, that it didn't relate to anything else you had seen, you did in fact feel some frustration in not knowing what had happened on the other side of the curtain. Frankly, I can't believe you were looking for narrative logic, and what's more don't really believe that you were.
I wasn’t looking for narrative logic; I was looking for dramaturgical logic: if you’re constantly adapting your terms of reference to the clichés of the scene, it expands neither the scene nor the whole. And the whole, on my side, the value-for-money side, so to speak, often looked like a confused blockbuster of the most extreme kind: eye candy and tokenistic humour with not much tying them together.
My side was like hanging out with the production runners on the set of a blockbuster: it was kind of fun. I had no idea there was a love story running through the piece until you told me. The only hint we got of it in the first half was when Lipson, wearing that ridiculous jacket, interrogated Vince about it. This, coincidentally, was the only section of the piece I really didn't like, this blatant incursion of narrative into the proceedings. Obviously, as we have both noted, the whole show was in its way a fiction – a symbolic or affected chaos as opposed to the real thing, a superficial exploration of bigger, harder questions – this was the only moment on my side of the curtain where narrative fiction stuck its nose in where it wasn't wanted. Maybe this is something you saw more of – you were, after all, the one who followed the love story from one side of the curtain to the other, while I followed the before-and-after-the-deluge-ness of the narrative-free backstage space. This space was fictitious too, of course – it's hardly as though the nonchalant wandering around of the performers wasn't equally as choreographed as what was happening on your side – but it wasn't a narrative fiction, and I appreciated that.
What I’m noticing is that there were obviously two very different sides to this show, but not the way we originally assumed. There was the back and the front, the honest frustration of the hungry and the more insidious frustration of gluttony.
I really wasn't that hungry backstage: there was plenty of termitic detail to fill me up. (Chris Boyd, however, appeared to be starving.) Meanwhile, it seems increasingly to me that what you were after was a happening, not a show. Is this a fair assessment? It's a similar complaint to those being made by most critics of an oak tree, who have claimed that the guests invited to take part have not been willing or able to transcend performativity. (Tim Crouch should get members of the audience to do it. Members of the audience who aren't actors.)
Funny you bring up Tim Crouch, since an oak tree had exactly the same problems that Two Faced Bastard does. Unsolicited, unneeded humour, and total transparency of method, both employed in order to make the experiment as safe as humanly possible while keeping the semblance of courage and of crossing boundaries. But, remember, Two Faced Bastard invited the audience on stage, and yet controlled the effect with an iron fist. An oak tree featured the same participation as tokenism, in which the supposed wild element cannot significantly alter any conclusion the performance strives to make – the same thing we regularly witness in your average political process.
I don't think Two Faced Bastard controlled the process. We controlled the process. You or me or anyone could have sat down in the middle of the stage – on one of the chairs even – and refused to move. That moment was about giving us a choice and none of us really chose to take it. In other words, Vince won the argument: we could have induced chaos but didn't. We have internalised the rules, not only of Two Faced Bastard, but of theatre-going etiquette more generally: the show is the boss.
I dare you to sit down in the middle of the stage next time you're invited to audience participation, and test the political permeability of the situation.
I think every show in this country is chiefly concerned with providing closure in regards to value of the money spent. There is no brutality, no violence, in Australian theatre, lest we get another opinion piece bemoaning the extravagance with which the decadent artists spend the taxpayer’s dollars. I think it hurts everyone if we are tickled, yet treat it as a slap. It makes for a weak audience, and weak artists. It makes us sheltered, self-satisfied, and whiny. Of course people don’t know in which direction to faint first when they see a Kosky show: nobody is used to a real slap anymore. What Bastard does brilliantly, perhaps without meaning to, is lay bare this desire to get the value of our ticket price back. My side, with Lucy’s pretty dancing bodies, I would say, is where our money's worth was meant to be. Even when we changed sides, we were still hoping the money’s worth would follow us.
I'm not too surprised by all this. We're talking about Lucy and Gideon here, for whom the answer to the question of chaos is invariably to provide only an illusion or illustration of it. It is on this point, I think, that we both agree, but also where we ultimately part company. We agree that the show could have gone further, introducing a genuine level of risk for all parties concerned. I did not expect it to do so, due in large part to the team behind it, and so was not too disappointed when it didn't. I was able to take something away from it, the Farberian minutiae, the little things. You, while not seeming gutted exactly, nonetheless seem somewhat angrier.
That's because I can imagine the damage this will do to the local theatre for another twenty-four months at least, with any brave exploration flagellated, even self-flagellated, because, hey, if Chunky could do it and be so fun and accessible, why does any tall poppy need to get all aggro with the audience? This, to me, was deadly experiment, an equivalent of Brook’s deadly theatre, more insidious for pretending to be brave when, in fact, it was deadening:
The problem of the Deadly Theatre is like the problem of the deadly bore. Every deadly bore has head, heart, arms, legs: usually, he has family and friends: he even has his admirers. Yet we sigh when we come across him – and in this sigh we are regretting that somehow he is at the bottom instead of the top of his possibilities. When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this very reason incapable of change. . .
When good actors play in bad comedies or second-rate musicals, when audiences applaud indifferent classics because they enjoy just the costumes or just the way the sets change, or just the prettiness of the leading actress there is nothing wrong. But none the less, have they noticed what is underneath the toy they are dragging on a string? It's a wheel.
But is that what we settle for? Is that what we've come to expect? Do we not, ever, demand more?
Melbourne International Arts Festival. Two Faced Bastard. Direction & choreography: Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin. Set design: Ralph Myers. Lighting design: Philip Lethlean. Costume design: Paula Levis. Composer: Darrin Verhagen. Performers: Vincent Crowley, Anthony Hamilton, Michelle Heaven, Stephanie Lake, Brian Lipson, Byron Petty & Lee Serle. Arts House, Meat Market. 8-12 Oct.