Tag Archives: classics

RW: Two Classical Comedies

Molière’s legacy encompassed more than his plays. He left behind an acting style developed with his company over many years. Based at least in part on their observations of the Italian actors who shared their theatres, this style was far more realistic, more modern, that the orotund declamation and practiced posturing of the tragedians at the Hotel de Bourgogne. Because the Italians improvised their dialogue and action, at least while they were developing a new play, they acted with what we now call “concentration,” that is, they were alert to each other and to whatever was happening on the stage. They played together in the scene and in the moment. The classical tragic style, that Molière burlesqued in the Impromptu de Versailles, was rather more like that of opera as it was performed until relatively recently. Actors, for the most part, delivered arias while other actors waited their turns.

– Virginia Scott: Molière

We forget details like these. Sure, Molière the satirist. Oh, things can be so biting 200 years later! The problem, as usual, is practical: how do you make a play that was current, deliciously mean, hilarious and a popular blockbuster 200 years ago into a performance that’s current, deliciously mean, hilarious and a popular blockbuster now, and remain faithful to the text? What would a successful contemporary reworking of a Molière play look like? There would be as many answers as there are Molière-readers out there, I imagine, not least because a dramatic classic always seems to mean anything to anyone. Unlike literary classics, you see, dramatic texts are rarely pinned down into canonical meanings. Canonical interpretations, yes, but here we have 200 years thereof… and it’s not even in English.

For example, there was Tartuffe, in 2008. Evidence for examination: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Alison thought it feisty, and “rude, crude and vulgar” in the good sense of the word: “it doesn’t make a lot of sense so much as a lot of pointed nonsense.” In the comments to TimT, someone was outraged at the production resorting to cheap laughs “or sexual innuendo which really isn’t very clever at all.” Chris thought that Molière’s razor-edge satire was completely blurred and called the production a garden without the snake. ArtsHub “more slapstick than witty farce”. Martin Ball, in The Age: “the effect is comedic and parodic – burlesque, even – rather than satirical or subversive.” Notice how, in most of these reviews, Molière is promoted (or demoted) into a satirist, whereas there is an equally, if not more widespread judgement that he wrote farces. While TimT bravely examined what a perfect contemporary Molière would look like – arriving at no plausible answer, but several wildly entertaining ones – the general opinion seemed to be that it should be a sort of Wilde for the naughties. Well, messieurs. As of slapstick, I can only really say, cough ahem, commedia dell’arte.

Then came The Hypocrite. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Some distinguished company here, hiding behind the numbers, from our comrades at The Quadrant to Mr Craven at The Age. This one was easier, because apparently it wasn’t funny (Kevin Johnson liked it, but he professed not to like Molière much.) Again, crudity was a bit of a problem, but more than one reviewer praised it as a “fine show”, which signals to me that the Molière of Molière was failed by this production. The satire, clearly, was created, in the work of a man who made a play that ridiculed the critics of his last play ( La Critique de “l’École des Femmes”, following L’École des Femmes and brutally criticising every critique made thereof). Since when has that been a sign of good taste? Peter Craven, strangely enough, gives the most satisfying account, probably because his isn’t a review (he mentions a very successful Kosky production, which he apparently hated). But the most respectable trait of Mr Craven’s is his ability to praise a theatre production without apparently liking it at all. Always a sign of a good journalist, and I do mean it in the best of ways.

Now, without having settled the satire/farce dilemma, we have to turn to the VCA, which is double-billing The Bourgeois Gentleman with The Learned Ladies, as their mid-year Classical Comedies for the acting class 2009 *. Keeping in mind our opening paragraph, one must say: what a great choice. What a vehicle to show the theatrical range of these young actors right when they need it the most. And do they succeed? Partially.

I confess: Molière-for-kids was among my favourite children’s book, and generally every effort was made to bring his work down to me, not make me reverentially labour through it as an untouchable classic. As a result, perhaps, just pronouncing his name gives me an immediate uplift. To my mind, the beauty of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin is the beauty of musicals, of pop songs: smooth and round-cornered and candy-coloured and somehow irreducible to intellect. There is a physical, spontaneous vigour in this theatre, a jouissance, an excess. The same elementary force that one can find in the Decameron, and completely aligned with that great expanse of bourgeois theatre that developed in the Edo-era Japan (the sewamono, with its own spectrum of stock plots and characters, from merchant bonvivants to good whores).

To be terribly Marxist about the entire thing, let’s point out that these plays appear at a time when a new class of uncouth, moneyed bourgeoisie is rising through the ranks, challenging the values of the aristocracy while, in the lack of its own Weltanschauung, it is still half-arsedly attempting to emulate its ways, creating plentiful opportunity for laughs all round. It is only once they have completely supplanted the old money that the situation can turn poignant, and we get misplaced Hedda Gablers and the revision of the samurai code. In other words, when Kath and Kim becomes a pitiful tragedy for the few, we will know that the bogans have won. It will also, I imagine, eventually result in the promotion of Kath and Kim into a witty, biting social satire of sorts, and a classic to be reverently re-made. (However, judging from the recent developments on the GFC front, it looks like the presently-moneyed are fighting well, and that won’t happen just yet.)

In any case: to try to pick out a deep-meaning theme out of these paper-thin plots and wafery characters is like looking for the Nietzche references in a Destiny’s Child album (God knows some do). These plays still have little literary value – I know them only because I was going to be a Japanologist, back when I was a serious young person. Instead, what they possess in abundance is an unbridled, manic, irreverent excess of energy, for the sheer sake of energy consumption. The biting social critique that Molière’s theatre offered to its time still has a lateral function, an explanation of sorts, a hinge to hang on to and nod, because it offers an analytical way in, but perhaps it is the performance itself, a slippery thing made entirely out of “concentration”, that we should be looking at. Perhaps, like stand-up comedy, like Olympic sports, the meaning of the action is entirely secondary to the execution.

Thomas Conroy, Annie Last and Emmeli Johansson in The Learned Ladies. Photo Jeff Busby.

And is it executed wonderfully? Partially! The two comedies are not so much directed, as staged; and without a strong directorial statement, in the present situation in which the meaning of Molière is anything but clear, this is a veritable minefield. Paul Weingott’s The Learned Ladies veers uncertainly between the usual poles: wanting to be hilarious, and wanting to be a biting satire. The latter fails for all the reasons implied above: when we laugh at the semi-learned ladies, who are we laughing at? The newly impoverished poor? The mythical bogan? The satire satirises nothing. The former, though, doesn’t quite occur either: there is a lot going on in this version of The Learned Ladies, but nothing quite adds up. There is music, there is dancing, there is acting, there is a love story. In the most unfortunate choice of them all, there is also semi-gloom, decay and ominous roaring, which may be signifying the end of the world (see GFC), but it’s a finger not quite pointing in any direction. Left to their own devices, the young actors do their best.

If The Bourgeois Gentleman succeeds, it is precisely because the play is only a pretext for the actors to go nuts. Without looking at creating relevance, Gary Down allows it to be a two-act piss-take, and the result is not biting, not a popular blockbuster, not necessarily deliciously mean either, but certainly hilarious. The performers seem more settled in their respective roles, probably because the aims of this production are better delineated, allowing them to explore the performative extremes of the types they are playing. From the mirrored romantic comedy of the bourgeois/servant couples, the greedy flattery of the exasperated teachers, the aristocratic antics, the merchant common sense of Mme Jourdain, and the role-playing Turks, every gesture is amplified beyond obvious references, creating interactions and situations so utterly over-the-top as to resemble the most absurd of the Monty Python moments. However, Mike Steele owns the show as Mr Jourdain, the taker of lessons in all arts plus philosophy, the ultimate aspirational. Barely absent from stage, his persona is both broadly effeminate and resolutely crass, a sort of all-encompassing caricature that stand-up comedians sometimes develop, an image both recognizable and exquisitely original. It is worth seeing for his performance alone.

Michael Steele and Kyle Baxter in The Bourgeois Gentleman. Photo Jeff Busby.

To return to our first reference point, Molière can be a fantastic vehicle for young actors: it demands an out-there-ness that an actor can play with in most flooring ways. It demands big-ego, big-ball performances. It attracts attention – hopefully. But until we figure out whether we want our Molière poignant or hysterical, it seems slippery territory for directors. The relative success of these two comedies shows precisely the problems with treating Jean-Baptiste as an ideas man. Although both offer material that could be re-relevantized into contemporary issues, they work the best when they completely sideline that thought, and play with the upper limits of the form. Paradoxically, it is when they forget all that boring stuff about contemporary references, and instead sink into the excess, the near-absurd caricature, the farce, that the comedies genuinely engage their audiences.

EDIT: I had previously made a claim that the Classical Comedies were the Class 2009’s final productions. This is wrong, since we’re mid-year, and a result of a very strange confusion in my mind, to do with the Northern Hemisphere and my own sense of lagging behind. Apologies.

The Bourgeois Gentleman. By Molière. Directed by Gary Down.

The Learned Ladies By Molière. Directed by Paul Weingott.

Acting Company 2009 with Production Students. Both showing at VCA, Performing Arts Building, 28 Dodds Street Southbank, until Saturday 6 June, 2009.

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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.


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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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, 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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The Scoundrel That You Need; or, a welcome addition to our limited (albeit expanding) repertoire

The Scoundrel That You Need. Written by Aleksandr Ostrovsky. Directed by James McCaughey. Lighting Design by Chris Sanders. Audio-Visual Design by Brad Picken. Sound Design by David Membery. Cast includes Stephen Costan, Steve Gome, Miria Kostiuk, Evelyn Krape, Olga Makeeva, Grant Mouldey, Ben Pfeiffer and Elizabeth Thomson. Gasworks, Melbourne, until 24 May.

You know the joke: two Englishmen and one women, two Frenchmen and a -woman, and three Russians of the same demographic, land on a desert island. The French group starts a menage-a-trois. The English immediately go each to their corner of the island, because they haven't been formally introduced. The Russian woman falls in love with one of the men, marries the other, and suffers for the rest of her life.

When I first encountered Melbourne theatre in 2005, it was a predictable routine: on the one hand, a small pool of approved classics (in this case, so it seemed, Shakespeare, some Ibsen and some Chekhov, American 20th century, omnipresent Beckett and a dispiriting showcase of local playwrighting talent), produced always in a serious, well-made manner; on the other, a homegrown selection of homegrown indie, vacillating between TV melodrama and plotless innovation (the latter physical more often than dramatic, perhaps to avoid the need to criticize, or even articulate). I blame the tyranny of distance: it simply takes a long time for a new trend to develop, and in 2005 it seemed that nothing new had arrived since, somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, the ideal of the well-made play shipwrecked on the island.

When the Hayloft Project opened their (already legendary) Spring Awakening, at this time of 2007, they started a new trend: brave new re-workings of 19th-century pieces, fearlessly cutting apart, speeding up, stretching and sharpening the text, adding atmosphere, violence, psychoses, or complete deconstruction of sets as they saw fit. 19th century arts were already audacious in their search for new forms in art, life and society, criticizing and proposing and experimenting and showing success and failure, cause and consequence: Hayloft Project simply showed Melbourne the potential to direct the bite towards our times, our spaces. To maltreat the text better (hear my loving tone), in a singularly text-centric culture, they opted for lesser-known, yet excellent, works from the vast pool of the literary history Australia had decided to ignore: the Russians, the Germans.

The Scoundrel That You Need, a bourgeois farce written by pre-Chekhovian Aleksandr Ostrovsky and currently showing at Gasworks, is a child of this trend, and validly so. The theatrical horizons of Melbourne have expanded enormously within a year, and – remember the joke from the start – I would, at any point, much rather watch Russian intrigues on stage than the English waiting to be formally introduced. Forgive the orientalism, but a stageful of Australians hardly creates drama. Introduce some Russian citizens, and they gossip, fight, love, plot and make each other suffer.

My rather reviewy review can be found online at vibewire.net. This was merely an unreviewy rant that didn't make it into the final cut.

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Venus in Furs;

It's been recently asked, why are 19th-century pieces re-worked, dissected and performed all over Melbourne these days?, and I can only quote in response that 19th century art was

paintings in a succession of new styles, which saw the world in different ways, and a flood tide of novels and poetry depicting the struggles of modern men and women in their search for identity, love and meaning – from Madame Bovary to J. Alfred Pruftock, Lady Chatterley and Dean Moriarty. (Richard Florida, of all people!)

19th century was the beginning of modernism, and of doubts. Whereas 18th century reads like a collection of pamphlets (and I say again: de Sade first among equals), everyone was so positivist and certain, 19th century was the beginning of that earnest, modernist, search for answers. To the extent that very often it doesn't matter what the author's personal conclusion was: the journey remains fresh and untainted by answers. That Ana Karenjina was composed as Tolstoj's manifesto for humble marital collaboration, that Ana's character was conceived as the accusatory portrait of a person of weak morals, does not mean much today, and certainly does not cloud the extraordinarily sympathetic depiction of a woman looking for meaning of life, as things were, in romance.

Neal Harvey's triumphal adaptation of what could have been a very daggy little relict of someone else's erotica completely understands this point: Venus in Furs, currently playing at Theatreworks, steps carefully around sex and fetish, to outline this search for the best way to love and be in love. We are as concerned with the ways we relate to people now as we were in 1800s, and this play speaks of and to our time.

My review of Venus in Furs is now available online at vibewire.net. It tries to talk with the play, rather than of the play, which is always what I'm looking to find in a review.

Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Dates: 2-18 May
Times: Tues – Sat @ 8.00pm; Sun @ 6.00pm
Tickets: Adults $25, Concession $20
Bookings: (03) 9534 3388, www.theatreworks.org.au

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