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Black Lung: Avast I & Avast II – The Welshman Cometh

I first encountered the Black Lung boys in Rubeville, in a Westgarth garage in 2006. As it often happens on the occasion of Fringe, the original venue had to be abandoned soon after the programs went to print, and I could be seen running up Smith St, having just read the handwritten notice on the ex-venue door, trying to get to a completely different suburb in five minutes. And it was worth every drop of sweat and every curse and kick of the tram door. Rubeville, I remember, was a ramble on the pursuit of money and fame. Some of it was obviously improvised, some of it probably wasn't. Most of the time, one just couldn't be sure. Eloise Mignon overdosed, vomited, and stepped out of character to complain about the gender politics behind her one-woman prostitution and drug abuse, surrounded with male heroes. Gareth Davies plotted to steal the Black Lung till and fly out of the country. Dylan Young offered his body to just about everyone in view. It was unpredictable, self-indulgent, plotless, but it was brilliantly written, fizzing with energy, and incredibly funny. It was brilliant theatre.

Having since missed all sorts of small-format Black Lung, including an intriguing-sounding Short + Sweet 10-minuter, 9 of which Davies spends raping Sacha Bryning (I hear), and Pimms in Fringe 2007, due to another venue catastrophe, it's been a relief to find Black Lung stable, intransient, programmed, unable to escape or collapse or disband or disappear, in the Malthouse Tower, presenting a revival of an old work, Avast, and an original sequel/prequel to it, Avast II. And they are still gorgeous, gorgeous boys.

The Black Lung boys.

Avast is grand and great. As we enter the Tower, completely transformed into a sort of magic shed of early manhood, all vintage porn magazines, rows upon rows of black umbrellas in the ceiling, graffiti on black walls ('Albert Tucker Mother Fucker'), animal skulls on wood panelling, damp Persian rugs on the ground and dead nannas in the corners, my companion smiles like only girls smile, and exclaims excitedly: “It smells like men!” Music is blaring, semi-naked dirty men with bushranger beards are jumping, dancing, and running through the space, and this chaos will seamlessly turn into theatre. Until it seamlessly turns out of theatre again, it will do the same as always: half of it, you will know, must be improvised, but you'll never be sure which half. Props will collapse, actors will seriously injure one another, bad stories will be told and audience members will try to leave only to get shouted at, and I quote: “Sit the fuck down or I'll punch your girlfriend in the face! That's rude!” (finding out that they were planted in the audience almost broke my heart). Among all this, the flimsiest narrative line emerges: two brothers reunited, for one to kill the other.

Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, the Malthouse-generated prequel/sequel, is a more coherent, more narrative-friendly performance. It has some semblance of plot, and is less of a meta-meander than Avast the First. It explains it, however, serving almost like an annotated commentary on the influences: an array of pop artefacts, from graphic novels (Preacher), films (Kill Bill), to cartoons (the Dragonball series). It is a western informed by the samurai Japan, by the gothic, by dungeons & dragons, a loose theme park of duty, family bounds, heroism, frontier mythology, resilience in the face of natural disasters, sword fights. It is a world devoid of women, where all the conflicts are between friends, fathers and sons. The story, if we should bestow such an honour on the ramble, follows an outlaw coming into the city, dragging an outcast, roped by the neck. The found man, nameless, with a hook instead of one hand, is baptised Diego because no-one can die without a name, and their arrival wrecks havoc upon the township, stirring shit in relationships between fathers, sons, friends (as already mentioned), and God. The narrative shifts left to right, following a logic of something other than plot, and music is employed like Melbourne doesn't get enough of it.

Death, and the melodrama of dying, are explored to no end, with Sasha Bryning pouring red paint on the necks of the cast, as they collapse one after another, while Henning, sitting on a couch in a corner, predicts the death of each cast member, from the grotesque (drowning, stabbing) to the mundane (prostate cancer, heart attack). Finally, the closure comes through the deus ex machina of American-accented monologue on the late Beatles and love, all sentimentality and nostalgia. The real content of the delivery is emotional, behind the avoidance of every motif and moment that happened on stage until then, just like male communication is predominantly about not saying anything. The logic of Black Lung is precisely the logic of that last monologue: rambling, elliptic, bursting with suppressed content, standing knee-deep in the murky waters of subconscious logic.

If there is one thing the Avasts are about, it's masculinity, in that primordial sense of strength, impermeable solidity, uncertain aloofness. (It's notable that someone like Christos Tsiolkas, a testosterone writer, an angry man, is an absolute anomaly in Australia although, for example, he would fit easily in the US literary mainstream. There is something repressive in the Australian story-telling, sense-making tradition that blocks not only femininity, but also unbridled masculinity.) All the usual problems of manhood and self-definition are present: from father-son and brotherly relationships, the insecure male sexuality, to the confusion of idols, roles and role models. It brings in boys icons from samurai and Nick Cave to superheroes and Son Goku. Deeply appealing images of freaks, gunmen, knights, strange animals, the lone saviour and the lone outsider are inflated, killed and exhumed, just like the God who descends only to be killed with a shotgun. All done with such irreverent, intelligent negligence for simple logic, that a girl spends the evening in giggles.

There is a rich undercurrent of contemporary mythology that Black Lung draws from, in a way that's openly juvenile, semi-certainly subconscious, but well-processed nonetheless. As stage content, it is glutinously over-the-top, indulgently amassing cultural waste on stage, pictures and phrases and postures and punchlines, letting them collide in montages of nonsense. But this is the over-active subconscious of humanity as refracted through the imbecile prism of pop culture. Just like myths are a drone of masses reduced to the most essential trickle of the most incisive images, stories, so is pop culture a choir of human confusion distilled into key dreams and nightmares. To dedicate one's life to trash, thus, may be a bit boring, lacking in variety, but a small dose is an immediate connection to all that's deeply true about life, without the filter of self-aware censorship.

Thomas Henning is an astonishing writer, and these two are, however strangely, solidly spoken-word pieces, although language is never more than another sign system to be blown up. The dialogue effortlessly shifts register from haute to pulp to slang, wrapping itself into knots of delightful hilarity. Dylan will attack the town preacher, “I'm thinking I might cut you down, like you cut me down and let me outside to rot!”, while the latter will defend himself fiercely: “Not to die, though. Not to die.”, while Johnno, who has changed into a woman midway through Welshman, leads a playful, seductive dialogue with Gareth by asking: “Have you ever killed a dragon?”, to which he deadpans: “Yep.” It goes off on tangents, from attachment to dead mother, dead father, brotherly rivalry, transgender conversation (Sacha Bryning does a feminist stand-up routine, but with an entirely male body language and intonation). Yet the verbosity is paired up with the most exquisite visual sense. A 1930s panama gentleman, a procession of strange animals behind a brotherly conversation, gay jokes, stadium rock, all is raised and dropped onto the text, onto the audience, with such diamond-sharp cohesive logic, that against all odds it feels like a journey, not a train crash.

One of the main qualities of Black Lung is the overwhelming freshness they bring to the theatre experience. The energy with which these guys (particularly Gareth Davies, the Prince Charming) jump across the stage, perfectly comfortable while hopping from silliness into acting into meta and back conveys a strong sense of understanding, agreement within the group. Whatever physical violence happens on stage is real, not clumsily enacted (as is usual); performers burst into giggles; there is enough unexpected, contextless nudity to make one feel that the performers are simply taking the piss. It's consistently uncertain what's structured, and what isn't, as the language and the imagery are constantly destroyed and renewed, in a way that feels sometimes dictated, sometimes improvised, but always purposeful. I don't remember my last theatre performance after which the performers could be heard shouting in the foyer: “No, he didn't really get hurt! It's called theatre, people!” The early, almost child-like thrill of real people, tangible, touchable, approachable, mortal, in the spotlight in front of you, comes alive again.

Black Lung are probably the most significant young company in Melbourne, if not more widely. Hold on to these tickets, boys and girls, they will be collectables soon. Unless, of course, the whole band disbands in a few years, frustrated by lack of funds, poor audiences, and our newspaper critics. (The audiences, for now, have been good, I should acknowledge. The blogosphere is buzzing. The funds are still not desperately needed. They're young.)

Avast and Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, a Malthouse / Black Lung co-presentation. The Black Lung Theatre Company: Sacha Bryning, Gareth Davies, Thomas Henning, Mark Winter, Thomas Wright, Dylan Young. Sound designer / musician: Liam Barton. Lighting designer: Govin Ruben. Stage manager: Eva Tandy. Malthouse Theatre, 12 November – 6 December 2008.

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Quick: This Is Set In The Future

Closes on the 7th December (Sunday) and should not be missed.

A couple of thoughts afterwards.

On the one hand, it is independent theatre for adults, by adults, distinctly different from most of independent theatre around, which is decisively children-centred. Affrontingly vulgar. There may be a few reasons for it. Has a strong retro feel, 1990s if not 1980s (always hard to tell when geography blurs chronology), all those accounts of Anthill suddenly shaped up into coherent images in my mind – this may be all completely wrong, I may be misled. It is crude, smart and brutally in your face in the way Melbourne independent theatre made by people of my generation simply isn't. (I blame the suburbs, but then, I'm an urbanist. I always blame the suburbs.)

It is well-written, -performed, and -directed. Keeps you on your toes. It does (almost) my dream theatre: a dystopian soap-opera, all imaginary problems taken to their extreme. It has flaws: the frantic acting and the verbosity often work one against another: the actors trip over the language, the language is lost. It is, however, an exhilarating night of theatre. Theatre. Not writing, not acting, etc. The whole thing is quite splendid.

Finally, it brings up an interesting question. Knowing that death is imminent makes us behave in ways quite similar to knowing death will never happen. The absolute of presence and of absence of death results in the same freedom, and it may be only the uncertainty that keeps us in check. (This, strangely, brings us back to Kundera, and the irrelevance of anything that happens only once.)

What makes it decidedly 1980s, and not now, I think, is the presence of death. In the 1980s, drugs were still lethal. AIDS was present, and so was the nuclear war. Contraception was not a given. One was still making choices. Today – apart from the suburbs, and the fact that most Australians of independent-theatre-making age were raised bubble-wrapped and fearful – we have had 9/11, we have had Belle and Sebastian, we have had the strangest combination of supremacy of the unReal (from suburbs and television to bubble wrap) and massive-scale trauma (Terror and the war against). Ecstasy doesn't kill, neither do computer games nor mobile phones. It is a much safer world. Much less real.

This Is Set In The Future is another Melbourne altogether. It is, in a sense, all about heroin.

The reason why I'm taking forever to respond to Bell Shakespeare's marriage with Heiner Műller is the complex ethics of the aesthetics of the unreal. When everything becomes a copy of a copy of an image, when consequences are many times removed, we are entering the realm of pornography. This Is Set In The Future, quite the contrary, is terrifyingly real. In that Műller sense of it being “the potentially dying person” that makes theatre special.

Startling.

This Is Set In The Future. Written by Glyn Roberts, directed by Robert Reid, designed by Sayraphim Lothian and Robert Reid, music by Josh Cameron. With Scott Gooding, Rachel Baring, Hayley Butcher, Joshua Cameron, Glyn Robert. La Mama, until 7 December. Thu – Sat 8pm, Wed & Sun 6.30pm.

This week

A number of small performances will open and close: blink and gone!

Lily Kiara opens on 5 and closes on 6 December: Moving South at the Dancehouse. Shelley Lasica presents VIANNE at 45 downstairs, from 4 to 14 December. Glyn Roberts's and Robert Reid's This is Set in the Future, at La Mama, closes on December 7 and is, I hear, perfect. It is also your last chance to see the gorgeous gorgeous Black Lung, and Bell Shakespeare's unhappy fling with Heiner Muller, complicated but well-worth seeing, both closing at the Malthouse on December 6.

Meanwhile, up in Sydney, Frankenstein, based on Lally Katz and set design, opens at Wharf2LOUD next week. It was in the previews when I was up partying, and I don't know if it's any good. NOMADS, the best performance in the country this year that nobody saw, opened at Performance Space on Friday and closed on Sunday.

I've had a rich week of theatre, quite uncharacteristically. While I'm sorting out my notes, trying not to spend too much time wrapped up in YouTubing the extraordinary work that friends and not-yet-friends in Europe are putting on, with big budgets, institutional support, and critical welcome, perhaps it's worth noting that Black Lung's Avast season at the Malthouse is the most significant development in independent theatre in Melbourne 2008. Visibility rather than creative outburst, perhaps, sure, but significant nonetheless.

Next week

I am a little tired of that incessant guilt I feel for not responding to theatre, all sorts of theatre, fast enough to give a review, a criticism, and publicity, in time before each and every show ends.

For that purpose, here. Your viewing list for the week:

VCA end-of-year showcase is coming to an end, with Transmutation, Season 2 (Graduating Students), on until Saturday 22 November, at Gasworks. If you've missed Season 1 (1st & 2nd year), boo-hoo, it was spectacular. Season 2, while not quite the gem, has Bocage by Phillip Adams, who may be the most important theatre-maker currently active in the country. Worth the ticket price just to see his piece.

On the same side of the river, Red Stitch are opening Christian Lollike's The Work of Wonder. Directed by the intriguing Herr André Bastian, it looks like a good end-of-year post-dramatic rollic, and I'm hoping something truly different and perhaps genuinely brave. Goes on until 20 December.

The Malthouse have that group of gorgeous boys, The Black Lung, doing a diptych of bushranger gothic, Avast I & II, until December 6. Alison has already written on both performances, but I am recommending blindly. I am trying to squeeze them both into my disastrous-looking schedule – if only because Dylan Young hugged me whilst inviting, and because I saw the guys on Fringe 2006, grabbing everyone's attention with Rubeville.*

*EDIT: Black Lung are indeed every bit as good as Alison makes them sound. If you only have the money for one theatre visit before Christmas, make it Avast I.

Finally, Red Cabbage are putting on a large-scale, ferry-around-the-bay, site-specific pirate thing called Collapse. Ferry and bus journey included in the ticket price. Until 30 November. Bookings on 03 9932 1000 or hobsonbaytickets.com.au

Meanwhile, in Venice

La Biennale, within the Biennale di Teatro program, has started Laboratorio Internazionale del Teatro [International Theatre Lab]: Mediterraneo, a festival of artistic exploration, which makes Venice look like whoa from 27 October to 29 November this year.

Based all around the idea of that beautiful space called the Mediterranean [umbilicus mundi], Maurizio Scaparro has started a series of labs which will coagulate into the 40. International Theatre Festival, around the Carnival in February 2009. Mediterranean, says Ian Chambers, luogo complesso di incontri e correnti, che implica lo spostamento di popolazioni, storie e culture, che sottolinea il senso continuo della trasformazione storica e della tradizione culturale che lo rende un luogo di transito continuo.

Or, roughly, complex space of currents and encounters, implying a circulation of peoples, stories and cultures, underlined by a continuous sense of historical transformation, and of a cultural tradition that makes it a space of constant transit.

In the series of workshops and laboratories (have a look) commanding attention, the one that grabs my eye the most is The Laboratory of Critical Writing, done in collaboration with IUAV's Faculty of Design and Arts, and the course of Methodology of the Performance Critique. Exploring performance criticism as it relates to judgement, memory and aesthetics, it plans to refer most heavily to two great thinkers of the theatre and the Mediterranean: Albert Camus and Pier Paolo Pasolini. The process will be documented on Giornale di bordo, the official papers of the Lab.

It looks, quite frankly, like something I would come up with I was showered with money. The intersection of space, theatre and thought. How apt.

Among the more general themes, there are Found Myths, Sans Papiers, The lingua franca of the Mediterranean ports; among the less general activities, an hommage to Pasolini, a dramaturgical workshop with Biljana Srbljanovic, a laboratory of performance photography, round tables. Some closed, some open to the public.

I am not even going to try to relate such a spectacle of intelligent creative exploration with anything going on in this city at the moment, except to make a little note that The Age may want to consider sending some of their arts commentators to the workshops. Perhaps next year.

From the news

1. Ray Gill proves you don't need to have two mature thoughts in a text in order to get published by the mainstream press. I doubt that the people who appreciate such levity of thought would have any interest in reading arts commentary of any kind, which makes Gill something of a Bolt figure of the left-of-centre-press in this particular instance. A spokesperson for the admirers of incidental pornography. Each to their own.

2. Family Stories opens in Sydney at Griffin Theatre, and Nick Pickard, a man of many hidden talents, notes. Read his excellent introduction to the text and the author here, and do go see the play if you can. It is, quite simply, one of the best theatre texts of the last decade, if not century.

3. Apparently, both That Night Follows Day and Romeo & Juliet are excellent. Not my words, but I am seeing late performances, and what's the use of a post-climactic recommendation? None.

4. In case you need me to tell you about it, The Croggon Institute has been heroically blogging about the Arts Festival, and so have, less systematically, three of my favourite local theatre bloggers: in alphabetical order. All men, funnily enough. Now where is this world going?

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La Mama saved…

...only two weeks out from the extended date of 30 September to raise $1.8 million to secure the purchase of its Faraday Street home in Carlton, in the words of the inimitable Maureen Hartley. A Federal Government grant of (impolite to quote these numbers, but) $175,000 was announced at the end of the Bash last Monday, which lasted forever and had some very good music (notably, the new hopes of that Melbourne brand of Russian rock, Vulgargrad) and wog comedy (featuring emo jokes, always welcome in this wog family) by the extraordinary Simon Palomares.

This means that we may be spared peddling little bits of paper (confirmations of our tax-deductible $2 donations) with every La Mama ticket we buy in the future. Due to the frequency with which La Mama rotates its many splendid shows, even this theatre-goer, fresh from the Old Continent, has already accumulated an unsightly bunch.

The heroic little venue has indeed been my the site of my first theatre experience in Melbourne, back in the cold winter of 2006. Its effort in promoting local writing, acting, and theatre-making, it sometimes looks (as it did on Monday) that everyone, everyone, started off in that little black box, and many a career was launched at the sound of bottles being dropped into the alleyway bins.

Good for the city. Good for all of us. These little scares are not exactly what the local arts scene needs, and Fringe is about to commence…

Attempts on Her Life; shortly and sweetly

I will write something proper when it's not 01:50, and I am not an exhausted wreck, who spent most of her (rainy) (windy) (disappointy) day on walking trips around Melbourne, then brainstorming with public servants (hard to say what hurt more).

Meanwhile, please do pay attention, because an excellent staging of Attempts on Her Life, in itself quite a magnificent text (by Martin Crimp), has just opened at Melbourne University Union House Theatre. Directed by Susie Dee, it is a challenging, thoughtful and incredibly satisfying production. I urge you to see it like I rarely urge on this blog. Even at my least exhausted, I think I'm rarely urgeful. But I am now.

ATTEMPTS ON HER LIFE
Melbourne University Union House Theatre
16-24 May 8pm
23 May 1pm matinee
Guild Theatre, first floor, Union House
Tickets: Full $20/Conc $12
Student Union Member $10
Bookings: 8344 7447

Announcing: Yes

Somewhere in between 2007 and 2008, among the works presented by the VCA then-graduates, was a little gem. A theatrical version of Yes, a beautiful (if flawed) little film by Sally Potter, in which the East and the West clash and crash in two bodies, nameless, a He and a She, speaking in rhyme, with cleaners and maids constantly breaking the fourth wall as an omnipresent chorus, and one very clever little ending. Everything about the film, indeed, worked best when it was little and English and round. Where it went wrong, I thought, was when it tried to extrapolate, abstract, generalise at the expense of the particular, of the people and the events.

The theatrical production overcame that obstacle. It was, I claimed and I still do, better than the film. Not by the virtue of re-writing it (it was singularly faithful to the script), but by the sheer nature of the medium: where film completely abstracts the individuals, the landscape, the rocks, the streets and the pulsating bodies it represents by bringing them from so far away, theatre operates with the opposing force, beginning with an abstract black (or white) box and filling it with naked, de-contextualised people, that rebuild their characters, setting and meaning through the course of the play. Matt gave a beautiful, and rather detailed analysis of why it is so in his blog at the time. With that little flaw out of the way, what remained was a powerful rendition of an original work by a very talented group of people.

We're solidly in 2008 now, the performers have re-assembled as OpticNerve Performance Group, and Yes is riding again, at fortyfivedownstairs from May 29th to June 8th. I will be going again, and so should you. For once, I am announcing early enough. And have a look at the trailer (which reminds me: how smart is that? Every theatre production should have a YouTube trailer. The job of a guerrilla publicist made infinitely easier in a blink)!

YES by Sally Potter (Australian Premiere)
Dates/times: 29 May – 8 June, Tues – Sat 8pm, Sat/Sun 5pm
Cost: $25 Full / $20 Concession
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or www.fortyfivedownstairs.com
Location: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne.