Category Archives: performance

The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next Wave notes


Briefly, because I am immensely looking forward to this sleep-longer-than-five-hours I am just about to have: Next Wave is great. I cannot write too much, because, unfortunately, I have promised words to other people (and the blog will have to wait for now).

But I thought it would be worth saying, important to say, that Blak Wave is one of the most important, and good, and meaningful things I’ve witnessed in Australia in such a long time. It requires an essay all of its own. Each event I’ve been to has been a healing experience, requiring words I do not have so close to it, and so late at night. And that Madonna Arms by I’m Trying To Kiss You is the best piece of Australian writing I’ve seen staged in a very, very long time (years!). And that I saw something very beautiful tonight at White Face, something I’d like to have a conversation about.

And I am yet about to go to Overworld, but Sarah Aiken and Rebecca Jensen have blazed a huge trail already in young contemporary dance in Melbourne, and I am extremely excited. As I am about the extremely well reviewed Terminal (disclaimer: the makers of these two works and I used to all live together in Brunswick East, so I may be terribly partial). And then there is Natalie Abbott’s MAXIMUM. From where I am standing, it looks like the first outlines of the future of dance in Australia.

And finally, the second edition of Kids Killing Kids. (Again, a disclaimer: KKK is affiliated with MKA, and I am also affiliated with MKA.) It is a work which formally does not depart in any way from that classical form of documentary performance that NSW exports around Australia and the world (certainly there’s a name for the genre by now?), but it is still an important, I think, work, because of its thematic concerns, because it asks questions that we are usually too polite, or too scared, to ask.

I am not allowed to say much more here, so I am just making an invitation. Come.

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

The postman brought it on Saturday.


It is colourful.


It has beautiful design.


And me inside!


It’s printed on paper (paper!).


It folds in the middle (folds!).


It’s a column.


A regular column.


On theatre.


And life.


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


I am so proud.

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Australian Script Centre has kicked off a new series of long-form essays on the state of the Australian theatre (playwrighting, but not just). The inaugural essay has just been published: it is the inimitable Alison Croggon, writing on the state of theatre criticism in Australia. The essay is long, exhaustive, and superb, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Meanwhile, one of the young and promising critics that Alison singles out for praise in the above essay, Jane Howard, has just launched a personal newsletter. (I must say I’m not sure how to link to something that exists via email, so I am linking to her blog announcement thereof, which is perhaps a bit lame.) Jane is in Melbourne to write about about Next Wave, the biennial festival of emerging artists that explicitly nurtures experimental work. From what I’ve read so far of Jane’s newsletter, it is as experimental and interesting as the festival itself. I also highly recommend.

Next Wave has also started, of course. I wish I had the time to engage in either long-form or experimental criticism, or both, of the many, many works that will be showing in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, between the two subjects I am teaching, and the two long commissions I need to finish, I feel like I’ll be lucky if I find time to tweet about them. Many things are going to be published in reputable media, of course – including my review of Next Wave – but with a bit of a delay. Meanwhile, enjoy Jane and Alison’s writings.

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The Conversation: Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Two performance artists in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) – the UK’s Bryony Kimmings and American Adrienne Truscott – have a certain flavour of humour: it’s the knowing, self-deprecating humour of the culturally dispossessed, of survivors and victims. And yes, they’re both women.

Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show about rape. In it, Truscott counters the stated prerogative of male comedians to tell rape jokes with a confronting routine in which she relentlessly does the same.

Her wit spares neither them, nor hip-hop artists rapping about date rape, nor Republican politicians expounding on “legitimate rape”, nor men in the audience.

Truscott also gets to explain why animal analogies are inadequate through progeny-eating gerbils. It is a bracing, uncomfortable, rewarding show. Is it funny, though? That depends on how you look at it.

The topic of “women in comedy” is endlessly controversial. Where are the women? Are there enough of them? Are women even funny?

The latter is apparently such a valid question that it has been regularly asked, with a straight face, by The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and possibly every other major media publication.

British-American author Christopher Hitchens famously stated in Vanity Fair in 2007: they are not. Those that were funny, he conceded, were mostly “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” therefore practically men themselves.

Coming to this question from a performance studies viewpoint – as opposed to being an expert in stand-up comedy like Hitchens – the question seems almost otherworldly. Let me explain.

Origins of performance art

In the second half of the 20th century, artists’ interest in real time, real space, real human bodies, real human presence and real human experience resulted in the development of what we call “performance art”: art inextricably linked to the artist physically producing it.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

The practice originated in the visual arts scene of 1950s and 1960s America. In Europe, slightly later, it became known simply as “performance”, while in the UK, once it reached theatre artists in the 1980s and 1990s, it became known as “live art” (from art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal history of performance art).

Performance art encompasses a wide range of practices but the two people that defined the term, almost to the point of cliche, are Japanese artist Yoko Ono and Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović. In the 1960s and 1970s, they let the presence of their own body make the artistic statement: Ono letting the spectators cut up her clothing in Cut Piece (1965); Ono and Lennon protesting the Vietnam War in a bed-in (1969); Abramović letting gallery visitors use various sharp objects, knives and a gun on her body in Rhythm 0 (1974); or leaning into a bow and arrow in Rest Energy (1980).

Performance art allowed feminist female artists to effectively challenge that standard object of representation in art – the female body. A living, breathing, talking, reacting woman could subvert, challenge, deconstruct the idealised notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. She could challenge the audience with her realness, and raise such taboo issues as menstruation, ageing, or sexual identity. The history of female art and the history of performance art are inextricably intertwined.

The vocabulary of performance developed by female artists emphasised solo performance, a strong element of autobiography or personal experience, veiled social critique, and interaction with the audience. Sort of like comedy, you see, apart from not being funny.

Except that it often is. It is no wonder that many women in this year’s MICF are performance artists, not career comediennes – the impulse behind these two forms is similar, and so is their flavour of humour. As Bryony Kimmings said last year in the London Evening Standard:

Women are funnier because we suffer more.

Consider Marina Abramović’s video work, in which she manically brushes her hair for 50 minutes, repeating the titular phrase, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful”. If you don’t hear the sarcasm, you’re missing the point of the work. It is the same flavour of barbed sarcasm that Adrienne Truscott uses when she opens her comedy show with a bona fide rape joke, and stands in front of us naked from the waist down.

The vulnerability of their bodies is an angry statement, but this angry vulnerability is almost defining of women’s life. It does not preclude humour.

Bryony Kimmings

This strategy of escalating the sexualisation of the female body until it is funny also appears in Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at MICF where she performs a long interpretive dance sequence that mimics sexual intercourse.

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Sex Idiot is an autobiographical journey through Kimmings’ relationship history while she is trying to inform previous partners of her positive STI test. It has that familiar emotional tone of self-deprecation, melancholy and wise acceptance – again, tone less akin to a mating call than to cotton-picking songs of American slaves.

It is also funny, outrageously so. But it is an emotionally complex humour: as Kimmings creates ever more hilarious performance artworks to honour each one of her previous relationships, we laugh at her disappointments, her poor choices, her wasted opportunities, her misapplied bravado. It is a journey that ends rewardingly, in rich introspection.


But the most extraordinary feminist performance currently showing in Melbourne is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, also created by Kimmings. Not officially a part of the Comedy Festival, but showing at Theatre Works as part of Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

It is a joint endeavour between Kimmings and her 11-year-old niece Taylor, in which they try to develop an appropriate role-model for tween girls. The show is emotionally hard-hitting in unexpected ways. It juxtaposes Taylor’s innocent preteen imagination with Kimmings’ adult protectiveness and cynicism, and it is sometimes very funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Nothing like a dry treatise in sexualisation of children, it left everyone in the audience sobbing quite unashamedly. It is a powerful example of how the emotional nuance of feminist performance can deliver a deeply felt social analysis.

Australian academic Germaine Greer famously accused female artists of exhibitionism and narcissism. This is not so different from accusing women comics of only talking about vaginas and men. Vanity Fair may be right to say that, until very recently, all female comedy could be divided into two camps: self-deprecating or men-hating. But, to some extent, this should be a self-resolving problem.

As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminism is inextricably related to telling stories women can recognise as being about themselves.

When talking about rape, promiscuous women and the sexualisation of children stops being a rebellious act, feminist performance will naturally move on.


Bryony Kimmings Sex Idiot runs until April 5.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model runs until April 6.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! runs until April 20.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 3 April 2014, and is here reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence, more for my own archival purposes than anything else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adelaide Festival (somewhat overdue)

Dear reader,

At the beginning of March, I went to Adelaide Festival as a member of the Guardian Australia team, and I spent six or seven intense days writing, interviewing, podcasting, and occasionally eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful, and very worthwhile experience. During these few days, I produced a miraculous amount of writing.

I reviewed Adelaide Festival shows:
Sadeh 21, by Batsheva Dance Company, one of the best performance works I’ve since in my entire life. Like all best dance, it was both indescribable and sublime.
The Seagull, by State Theatre Company, which was unfortunately very poorly made. I felt cornered by this production, which I could not rate very highly, and I wondered why it was included in the Festival program – it couldn’t compete with the high calibre of international work. The Seagull is such an important play for the history of acting: not just because Chekhov is famous for extremely nuanced naturalism, but also because Stanislavsky practically developed his famed ‘method’ (you know, like ‘method’ acting?) while directing the first serious premiere of The Seagull. To this day, Moscow Art Theatre has a seagull in its emblem to mark the importance of this play to its artistic project. So, you cannot stage this play with imprecise acting, with a lack of nuance. There are playwrights and plays in which very careful naturalistic acting is not that important: Brecht, for example; expressionists; Moliere; even Beckett. But Chekhov dies on stage if the acting is not fine. If you take nuance out of Chekhov, there is nothing left to talk about.
Blackout, by Stone/Castro Project. I love physical theatre, but it requires extremely well-rounded performers, trained both in movement and acting. This work was more ambitious, I felt, than many of the performers in its big cast could do. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and it was worth our while, because a highly ambitious work that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise is almost always more interesting than a successful work of modest ambition.
Continuum, by Australian String Quartet. This was a really great experience, because 1) both the program and ASQ were amazing, 2) I probably appreciated it beyond the average because I just very rarely get to attend classical music recitals these days, 3) I never ever review classical music, and 4) I realised I do actually know a thing or two about it.

At Adelaide Fringe, I saw:
Glory Box, by Finucane & Smith. I find Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith’s bizarre burlesque a bit hit-and-miss. They are such an unavoidable presence in Melbourne, so definitive of alternative burlesque here, that one by necessity sees a lot of their work, and it’s uneven both in concept and in execution. But this one worked perfectly for me. Perhaps because I had just returned from Western Europe, and was a bit fatigued by the world in which women with armpit hair are inconceivable, it just felt great to experience a terrifying striptease in which milk and cornflakes became horror props, a diva in a dress with a sequined vagina pattern, and similar over-the-top feminine self-expression. It was genuinely cathartic. (As I get older, and I put less and less effort in not looking like a boy – because I naturally look like a boy – the more I genuinely enjoy silly femininity. Perhaps because I feel less oppressed by it? Who knows.)
Run Girl Run, by Grit Theatre, which I thought was simple, but clever, but simple. In Australia, live art and performance basically happen in Sydney, which has a rich living performance culture centred around the university programs and Performance Space. Melbourne has never had that. As a result, ‘live art’ and ‘performance’ in Melbourne tends to be made by artists basically trained in theatre, not specifically in performance. The works often seem a bit naive, a bit unaware of the history of the form, their own artistic context. This was definitely one such work. Nonetheless, it was good. But simple.

I interviewed:
Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. I thought Naharin would be a stern and scary person, because I’ve found his choreographies cerebral and abstract – but he was genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I was so taken by his description of his work. Dancers who get to train with Batsheva Dance Company are very, very lucky people (I think).
Alexander Devriendt of Ontroerend Goed. The interview overran by 2 hours, I bummed cigarettes off Alexander, we were talking about how to make a theatre show about love, I told him how abused I feel about O.G.’s show ‘Internal’… It was a slightly insane process, but I was very glad to have a chance to chat with one of my biggest idols of contemporary theatre. I am a huge fan of Ontroerend Goed, and it was amazing to be able to quiz Devriendt on his process, motivations, and ideas.
Robert Lepage, of himself. I had such a good time talking to Lepage, who has such an interesting mind – I mean, we were talking about the birth of existentialism, the origin of theatre in communion, about urban sprawl… – that I really wanted to revisit his work, which I had often found maximalist, spread rather thinly. I am now looking forward to seeing his works with a better insight into the man that he is.

On the podcast, you can hear me:
on episode foud, discussing Batsheva’s Sadeh21, and
on episode five, interviewing Sharon Draper from the Australian String Quartet, and summarising my experience of the whole festival.

And I also did a video interview with Paolo Castro, with Bill Code, but you can’t see or hear me, I am just there.

Durational Blogging

In a very unusual turn of events, almost exactly 5 hours from now, I will be one of the bloggers that will come together, united by the forces of Exeunt Magazine and Forced Entertainment, to critically and bloggingly respond to the live streaming (on the internet) of Forced Entertainment’s 6-hour performance And on the thousandth night….

Which means: Forced Ent will be performing, in Lisbon, for six hours. Six of us will be blogging, in Melbourne, London and Berlin, for six hours. The result (what result?, the process!) can be followed here, here and here.

But first I will try to catch a few hours’ sleep. Good night!

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(Not Quite) RW: The Worst of Scottee / Theatreworks, Midsumma


One of the gay men with whom I saw this performance later told me that gay panic is still acceptable defense for murder in many places, including Queensland. When using ‘gay panic’ as a defense, “the defendant claims that they have been the object of homosexual romantic or sexual advances. The defendant finds the advances so offensive and frightening that it brings on a psychotic state characterized by unusual violence.” In 1997 in Queensland, a man was acquitted of murder and sentenced only for manslaughter of a gay man because, the judge said, the victim’s unwanted, non-violent sexual approach “represented “provocation of a very grave kind” and would cause “some ordinary men [to] feel great revulsion.”. Murder became manslaughter because “an ‘ordinary’ man in his position would have reacted in this way.”

The Worst of Scottee was a first-person narrative of a gay adolescence and childhood, notable not just for its extraordinary comic voice, and for its precise, sophisticated direction, but above all for the way it gradually stripped the dramatic persona of a camp, showy, attitude-ful performer of all of that glitzy, queen-y stuff, stuff as in frills and gestures and vocal work, and revealed, with a candidness that I later realised is somewhat rare in the mainstream heterosexual universe, some of that incredible, traumatic pain that marks so many gay people of a certain age as to be… how to put it… assumable. It did it gradually, with immense tact, because it hurt nonetheless.

Afterwards, another gay man, younger and from a liberal country, wondered why a teenager would, after some confusing but consensual gay sex, accuse another of rape. The rest of us were sort of surprised by his surprise. I have seen and heard so many stories of people who engage in gay stuff and gay feelings and then have violent, untethered, blaming, confused, unpredictable responses. The hurt that a confused person can do to a gay person is immense and un-underestimable.

There was a moment, in this beautiful, absolutely unmissable production, in which the performer said, simply, how he had to describe his first sexual encounter “in front of my mother, father, judge, and child abuse officer, in graphical detail.”

And at this I suddenly remembered the prolonged break-up with my first real girlfriend, at 17, which involved parents on both sides, an actual psychotherapist, lots of crying and strangely shaped distances, conflicting versions of reality, changing descriptions of feelings, and large numbers of adults wanting to know the details of everything, large numbers of adults arbitrating a teen romance. This was my first romantic experience, my first erotic experience, and as such indescribably private. To have a bunch of people show up uninvited and unwelcome, and trample through something so precious, felt like a betrayal beyond anything I could put into words, as an unspeakable violation.

Dating a man, afterwards, resounded with the silence of being left alone.

The Worst of Scottee is not about the way gay lives and loves, as luminous and delicate as any other lives and loves, are so readily invaded by medical sciences, forces of law and religion, and the most violent incarnation of bonton. If anything, it is more about how a vulnerable person, often prised open for no good reason, learns to be open and closed at the same time. This is perhaps simply where it touched me. But I cried so much in that auditorium, cried for my 17-year-old self and a love that exists in no photos, no reminiscences at the family table, that I felt a little dizzy for the rest of the evening, a little unable to hold a conversation.

The Worst of Scottee, written and performed by Scottee, directed by Chris Goode, 20 Jan 2014 – 25 Jan 2014, Theatre Works. Book here.


theatre at the limits (reviewed: Theatertreffen 2012, namely: John Gabriel Borkman)

John Gabriel Borkman, Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen.
© photo William Minke.


Since German theatre culture is perhaps the most robust in the world, attending Theatertreffen is a special treat. However, it was an unexpectedly ambiguous experience: high in standard, but surprisingly unsurprising.

Theatertreffen showcases an engaged, innovative, provocative theatre culture’s mainstream—large city theatres with ensembles, repertoires, bureaucracies—not performance art, live art or anything truly wacky. It is director-driven, conceptually sound, courageous, but still ‘theatre theatre.’ To the outside eye, the Theatertreffen experience is perched funnily somewhere between Kunstenfestivaldesarts and whatever a festival of Australian state theatre companies would look like: simultaneously bold, lavish and predictable. After watching the 10 plays repeat each other’s affectations, the experience started to look increasingly like a long joke on director’s theatre.

The Theatertreffen blog number-crunched the tropes and found: 9/10 plays addressed the audience directly; 7/10 involved shouting where it was not logically needed; 6/10 used film, and 7/10 microphones; 5/10 featured some form of nudity; 4/10 real children; 3/10 puppets or animal costumes; 3/10 running water; 3/10 had actors attack the set with paint; 3/10 were extravagantly long (

A sense of a transgressive folklore transpired, one in which nudity, multimedia, breaking of the fourth wall and self-reflection have long become convention—but also one with unexpected blind spots. I did not anticipate that Theater Bonn’s Ein Volksfiend (Ibsen’s Enemy of the People) would generate so much buzz just for casting a Middle-Eastern actor in the main role. Similarly puzzling was the excitement over Münchner Kammerspiele casting a woman in the role of Macbeth. The way Volksbühne’s Die [s]panische Fliege was singled out simply for being a comedy was alarming, to say the least. Additionally, there was a tendency among both the public and the press to term many works as ‘installations,’ merely, it appeared, because of the absence of set changes. The folklore, progressive or not, seemed to be in a rut.

There was much quality, but not much surprise. Münchner Kammerspiele’s Cleansed/Crave/4.48 Psychosis was a delicate and clean work, revealing the progression of Sarah Kane’s writing from narrative excess to introspective monologue, but also her constant return to a small set of obsessions: torture, desire, love. Thalia Theatre’s Faust I+II was a self-reflexive but good-spirited, storm through every gimmick of post-dramatic theatre, complete with a theoretical lecture on the significance of it all (a woman in gala dress announced: “Good evening. My name is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This work of mine, Faust, is a pinnacle of German literature. We know that today.”) International Institute of Political Murder re-staged an hour of Rwanda’s genocide-proselytising, shock-jock radio program in Hate Radio, an effective work in the classical tradition of political theatre.

john gabriel borkman

John Gabriel Borkman, Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen.
© photo William Minke.

However, the one work that towered above the rest was the 12-hour production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman by Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller and Trond Reinholdtsen, a work of such admirable excess and courage that this review will now devote itself to it entirely. All of Berlin tried to get a ticket for what Twitter termed “9/11 of theatre—there is no way back.” Borkman was unlike anything I expect to see again soon, and its singularity more than made up for the homogeneity of the rest of Theatertreffen.

It was, unsurprisingly, a bloody, gory, fanciful Ibsen text reduced to a few key phrases, guilty of almost every cliché listed above. An unrushed, postmodernist improvisation around a few key themes of Ibsen’s text (sexual repression, Oedipal complex, inter-generational violence, middle-class shame). Alienation was employed to the extreme: the set, a two-storey bourgeois house, was fully furnished with two-dimensional, cardboard furniture. All sounds were pre-recorded and amplified to cartoon-like effect. Performers in full grotesque costume and masks moved like large wooden dolls, miming imprecisely to dialogue wired through the speakers (mouthed live by the director in the back of the auditorium, as it gradually became clear).

This was Ibsen as Artaud-meets-South-Park. Where Ibsen’s Gunhild and Ella Borkman have an understated verbal tussle for the affections of young Erhart Borkman, Vinge’s sisters instead engage in a prolonged, puppet-limbed physical fight, throwing cardboard armchairs and grandfather clocks at each other to exaggerated sound effects.

But infantile it ultimately wasn’t. Borkman relied on the expectation of a theatre situation, as opposed to the more flexible durational performance, to discipline audience behaviour and thus focus our attention. We sat, dear reader, in orderly theatre rows, for 12 hours, leaving only for food, water and toilet, and rushing back in to see where the performance had gone. And it went everywhere. The initial anti-realistic excess had both ample time and drive to grow whichever way it found space, with the unpredictable, fluid energy of extended improvisation.

Despite the frequent promises to the contrary, I have never seen true chaos in the theatre, not until Borkman. Twitter buzzed with accounts of what new events had happened on each night. Stage fights turned into prop fights with the audience. The fourth wall was bricked up (taking 40 minutes to complete). An interminable “casting for Münchner Kammerspiele” turned into an army of actor-zombies being led by the director to storm the auditorium. (Afterwards, while washing stage blood off ourselves in the toilets, we witnessed an annoyed critic loudly demanding to have her expensive skirt cleaned by the theatre company.) Referencing the number-counting scene from Kane’s Cleansed, Vinge counted for hours, to many thousands, with occasional interludes into decimals. The set was repeatedly damaged. Some audience members were kidnapped. The Volksbühne security was on patrol, sounding alarms more than once. Amid the chaos, however, were moments of technical and narrative beauty: Erhart playing a computer game made entirely of moving cardboard sticks; a lifesize, flying 2-D helicopter; the drawing room which came off the house and sailed away like a raft.

German audiences are customarily prepared to engage, but Borkman built an exceptionally free rapport with its audience. We threw pieces of the set back at the performers. We freely snapped photos with our smartphones. We brought in beer and energy drinks. We walked around, peering into back spaces, moved seats, organised drinks and food delivery. Dozens of people outside waited for hours for seats to be resold. Around the 11th hour, Vinge threw packets of crisps at us, which we shared in a brotherly fashion, having by now become a settled community. After so many hours together, sitting among plastic cups, in sweaty heat, this was less a theatre than a party situation. What I had until now only read about—theatre as communion—came to life, surprisingly, serendipitously, as Borkman used every technique of durational performance, but barred the audience from the usual cool, detached comforts of such performances: the right to stand, walk around, leave.

Twelve hours in, after all the technicians had gone home, and only a video screen and Vinge were left on stage (groaning: “This is not over! I will not leave!”), the bleary-eyed audience finally stood up and applauded—until the very fact of applause became the end in itself, allowing us to tear ourselves from our seats and go home. It was 4am, and we were elated, exhausted and smelly. It was like leaving a techno party: an arts event we co-made, not simply witnessed, an arts event that had physically exhausted us. It revealed that the modes of engagement of classical theatre survive nowadays perhaps more in music events than in contemporary theatre.

Borkman was certainly the most tweeted, discussed and written about of all the Theatertreffen performances. While a distinct heir to German Regietheater, its pure excess made it slip out of grasp of analysis—apart from underlining the ecstatic, collective nature of the experience, critics have all resorted to simple, albeit incredulous, summaries. Whether it represents the future of theatre is still hard to say, if only because 12 hours can only be an exceptional investment of time. But, as Declan Greene, my guest at Theatertreffen, said months later, having finished his tour of the European theatre festivals, Borkman is by far the most exciting theatre work of the year.

Theatertreffen 2012: Münchner Kammerspiele, Gesäubert/Gier/4.48 Psychose, director Johan Simons, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 4-5; Thalia Theater, Faust I+II, director Nicolas Stemann, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, May 12-13; International Institute of Political Murder, Hate Radio, script, direction Milo Rau, Hebbel am Ufer HAU 2, May 16-18; John Gabriel Borkman, directors Vegard Vinge, Ida Müller, Trond Reinholdtsen, Völksbühne im Prater, May 5-19; Theatertreffen, Berlin, Msy 4-21,

First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 17. All rights reserved.