Tag Archives: expressionism

RW: The Wonderful World of Dissocia + Metamorphosis

Oh, Sydney. We may all know that Melbourne is the hub of independent theatre in Australia, but Sydney remains the elusive haven of mainstage. It has its fancy-looking Opera House shows, after all, and it has the supposed highlight of domestic mainstream, the Sydney Theatre Company (run by the glitterati Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton; home, until recently, of the one actors’ ensemble in the country; the commissioner of Benedict Andrews; the soothe for the discerning middle-class theatre-goer). It makes big-stage, big-cast, big-ambition work that the parochial Melbourne only dreams about. So why is it, then, that I come back from NSW once again disappointed?

One of each, this time. A local production that aims at decent middle, and a touring hit. STC’s production of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, and Vesturport – the Icelandic company that commissioned Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for a version of Woyzeck that Malthouse Theatre bought in earlier this year, a touring phenomenon (considering the generally low profile of Icelandic theatre) – with their Ten Days on the Island show Metamorphosis. Both troubling, with a troubling consistency.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia

The Wonderful World of Dissocia, STC, April 2009.

While I respect Anthony Neilson’s writing, it is a strange idea that writing can stand on its own on stage. Dramatic writing is eminently plastic, its abstraction and openness molding very quickly once it’s embodied in voice and movement. Sitting in Wharf 1 in Sydney, wondering where the magic had gone and how come I hadn’t noticed the clunkiness of the dialogue, I remembered Susan Sontag’s warning to the critic: apparently, concern was expressed over the intrinsic qualities of Marat/Sade, all based on the fact that it opened without making a noise, once upon a time in Poland, before Peter Brook.

In an article for The Guardian in 2007, Neilson’s advice to young playwrights was: don’t be so boring. “Boring the audience is one true sin in the theatre.” he continued, going back to things like plot, suspense, spectacle. While most theatre cannot outspectacle Cirque de Soleil, “The spectacle we can offer is the spectacle of imagination in flight. I’ve heard audiences gasp at turns of plot, at a location conjured by actors, at the shock of a truth being spoken, at the audacity of a moment.” Indeed, when disliked, Neilson’s theatre is criticized for moral ambivalence paired with sensory gluttony: too little ethics, too much feeling.

Promotional clip for The Wonderful World of Dissocia for the Edinburgh Festival

Having seen his work in London, I wouldn’t be surprised if Neilson was particularly prone to failure in other people’s directing hands. What makes some of us sound like a cult is intransmittable in writing alone. Although officially credited as a playwright, Neilson’s working process involves long rehearsals with actors but barely any script. Slowly, using the bodies and the voices and the space and the moment in time at his disposal, a performance thing is put together, usually shaping up right until the opening night. Were the English culture not so interested in the playwright at the expense of any other theatre artist, it would be easy to call him a deviser, a conductor of experiment: as things are, playwright and director is all I will claim. A good Neilson production is not only smooth as butter, with no friction between the actor and the role, the plot and the esprit du temps, but also comes across as a rollicking, bustling iceberg in the best sense of the mixed metaphor. Slowly wound-up to match the precise moment in time, there is nothing timeless about it. Being carefully attuned to the moment, it knows exactly when to hit and what with. As the audience, we get the strange feeling that the production is rummaging through our heads, manipulating us, telling us lies we want to hear, coercing the response it wants, like that old boyfriend who knows how to poke at the guilt and the paranoias. One feels vulnerable, exposed, frightened, seduced, and yet, coming out of the theatre, like after a randez-vous with a swindler or a manipulative parent, you could not quite say what happened and how the hell you’re shaking on the bus stop on the verge of tears. This is done with subtle, subtle means: a semblance of normal dialogue; hints that may not mean anything at all; threats we choose to ignore. The writing doesn’t have the placelessness and timelessness of Pinter, because it’s not poetry. It’s some sort of superbly meaningful prose, working through psychology rather than language. Says Neilson again (and local playwrights, do take note):

“There’s a lot of poetic dialogue around. Some people like it, but I’m suspicious. Poetic dialogue, done badly, leaves no room for subtext. A lack of subtext is fundamentally undramatic.”

Having said this all, what Sydney Theatre Company is currently showing is not really a decent-looking Neilson show. It has all the signs of an ailing classic produced out of obligation, rather than need. The Wonderful World of Dissocia is structured like a highly-contrasted diptych: the Alice-in-Wonderland fantasia of the first half rapidly gives way to bleak social realism of the second, which our, until-then-blissfully-wandering protagonist, Lisa Jones, spends bed-bound in a psychiatric clinic. If the first act was an anxious, but thrilling song and dance (for every industrious council employee arriving to the crime scene to be beaten, anally raped and urinated on instead of Lisa, there was a pair of merry insecurity guards or a Disney-cute Swiss clockmaker), if we were increasingly concerned about the stability and safety of the wonderland, then the second act, unrelentlingly realistic, impermeable to fancy, was nearly unbearable in its precise depiction of the psychiatric ward routine (a mute abbreviation of repeated pill-taking, back-rubbing, sleep-falling and chart-marking that a person deemed insane has for a life). Any happiness to have escaped safe out of the sex-mad and violent Dissocia – with or without the missing hour – should wilt at the sight of the dreary routine of a terminal madwoman.

Music video to a song from Wonderful World of Dissocia – Reykyavik City Theatre.

I say should, because none of this happens. Marion Potts’s direction is a strangely uncommitted business. There is not enough contrast between the acts to unsettle the expectations, to play the way Neilson envisages. The first act thoroughly fails to exhilarate and upset: it can neither draw the brio from the actors to make Dissocia a genuine roller-coaster, nor ground their characters and situations in enough of an echo of reality to create that anxious recognition of something not-quite-defined. If it eventually builds suspense, it is because underneath Kate Box’s ditzy Britney we recognize the brain-dead Bondi blonde (I dare suggest), and Michelle Doake’s local councillor Dot is a version of that same earnest lady that forgives library fines. Most performances, however, are rooted in television or theatre: where we should discern the real-life subtext of Lisa Jones wandering airports and dark alleys, we discern nothing but simulacra. It is also singularly thrifty with audio-visual tricks: the quiet sound and sparse light of the first half don’t contrast the second half enough (in Neilson’s Royal Court production in 2007, the stylized acting and continuous noise in the first act was contrasted by placing the hospital room in the second act in a box, the audience seeing it through a screen, a distancing effect amplified by microphoning the actors). The acting keeps even tempo (monotone, we could say), and even the otherwise excellent Justine Clarke ends up missing the point: what made London’s Christine Entwisle so poignant as a victim of mental illness was the apparent composure, avoidance of the very wide-eyed delirium that Clarke’s Lisa keeps in both Dissocia and hospital. So, while the first act feels like an indulgent prelude to the anticipated drama of the second, the second drags like an uncertain, glib epilogue to the first. Without the hold on our emotional pulse, Dissocia‘s simple plotting and the simple language don’t have the weight necessary to keep us interested.

An imperfect Neilson is still a treat in the antipodes, still a decent night out. But for those of us who expect magic, sheer magic, it is not enough.


Vesurport’s Metamorphosis, on the other hand, is the sort of theatre blockbuster that likes Sydney on its CV. Having seen a version of their Woyzeck at the Malthouse, I was curious to see whether the Icelandic stage folk were a true breed of genius, a curiosity, or in the right place at the right time, and how much Nick Cave was to blame.

Trailer for Vesturport’s Metamorphosis at Lyric Theatre

The factoid that escaped me at the time was that Vesturport are a physical theatre company of the Splintergroup kind. Their version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is rather more athletic, rather less verbose, than your usual unearthing of a classic. One morning, when Gregor Samsa wakes from troubled dreams, he finds himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin, and expresses his distress by climbing on furniture, falling through floors, and being poetically backlit in bed. In the beautiful two-storey set, his room furnished at a 90-degree angle (opening onto the audience not the fourth wall, but the ceiling), this Samsa crawls around the house, down banisters and over the furniture. Although this production seems to feature the matinee cast (no Gísli Örn Gardarsson – the Vesturport mastermind – donning the Samsa suit), the ensemble still performs with rare beauty. Edda Arnljótsdóttir, Jonathan Mcguiness, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, and Björn Thors exhibit that beautiful acting grounded in physical gesture that still hasn’t migrated from Europe to the Anglosphere. Although I’ve heard a few miffed comments on the high pretention of the expressionist exaggeration, how beautiful to see stage presence that wastes energy! So, on the level of execution, it is all rather beautiful. Yet Metamorphosis is also a tad predictable, not because the insertion of movement is trite – there is nothing more profound than the human body moving – but because the text illustrates the acrobatics, and vice versa, without ever colliding into synergy. Like Splintergroup’s lawn (the two shows are extremely similar in discourse and execution), the performance never makes good use of all the elements it has assembled on stage – if anything, our local lawn comes across as the more imaginative, more magical of the two, because its internal inconsistencies, prejudices and immaturity are worn on its sleeve. The inconsequentiality of the equation dank apartment/Queensland/astro turf/Kafka still amounts to more than the Tim Burton sort of baby expressionism.

Interpretations of Kafka have been so numerous because all are possible: from Freud to Franz’s personal anxiety. For Vesturport, Metamorphosis is a domestic tragedy spilling over into the public, a case of political informing the personal. With a touch of unexpected, moving tact, the fears of the Samsa family anticipate the holocaust with such subtlety that most of the audience probably didn’t notice – and how else could one possibly treat the holocaust today?That Gregor’s family cannot accept the abnormality of their domestic re-arrangement becomes an image of tragic blindness when their lodger indignantly moves out, proclaiming that “the time will come when we will clean the vermin from our society.” From costume hints to acting moments, the invisible hand of the totalitarian society swelling outside the family house is always present.

However, Metamorphosis is a story too simple to adorn with spectacle and not lose some of the sharp, abstract poetry. Apart from rebuilding it from scratch, there is little that a stage version can add to the classic, which begs the question why do it in the first place. As much as it is amusing – and perhaps very interesting for whoever in the audience wasn’t familiar with the story, bless them – the pretext to make the work in the first place seems somewhat flippant. For all the physical prowess and set gorgeousness, even the final scene, a glibly beautiful garden that opens for the relieved family once Gregor has dropped dead, it never amounts to much more than anxiety with acrobatics.

My impression, post-week of very ordinary mainstream, is that Melbourne’s impression of STC may be fundamentally skewed by the fact we get only the highlights touring. Ambitious middlebrow is an excellent thing, of course. But let’s admit when it fails.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia, by Anthony Neilson. Presented by Sydney Theatre Company. Director Marion Potts. Set Designer Alice Babidge. Costume Designer Tess Schofield. Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper. Composer Alan John. Sound Designer David Franzke. Movement Consultant Fiona Malone. Fight Consultant Scott Whitt. With Kate Box, Justine Clarke, Matt Day, Michelle Doake, Russell Dykstra, Socratis Otto, Justin Smith, Matthew Whittet. 18 April – 23 May, Wharf 1, STC.

Metamorphosis, Vesturport Theatre & Lyric Hammersmith, presented by Sydney Theatre Company. By Franz Kafka, adapted by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson. Music Nick Cave & Warren Ellis. Design Börkur Jónsson. Lighting Björn Helgason. With Edda Arnljótsdóttir, Jonathan Mcguiness, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, Björn Thors. Presented in association with Ten Days on The Island. 22 April – 2 May, Sydney Theatre.

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Anatomy Titus, The Work of Wonder: This Review is About the Audience.

1. Almost by accident, I came across the following story:
In [the Serbo-Croatian war in the early 1990s], for the first time in history, the tactic of rape became a strategy. Soldiers took women from their homes, from UN or Red Cross or refugee convoys, and put them in the so called “rape camps.” Young girls, daughters taken from mothers, mothers taken with their daughters. They were systematically raped until they got pregnant; then they were released from the camps, but in a late stage of pregnancy when it is too late for legal abortion. These women came to Zagreb, the Croatian capital and second refugee stop. Newspapers were filled with their stories: what to do with the unborn conceived in such terrible circumstances. The word “children” was avoided. –Sanja Nikčević. Rape as War Strategy: A Drama from Croatia

I am not sure what a good artistic response to a story of this kind would consist of, but I am not convinced it would of a woman raped in a locker, vomiting on the floor, as in The Women of Troy, a field trip into abjection. Rape camps are a different story to the holocaust, and neither is the digital photography of Abu Ghraib an instance of banal evil: both, instead, are illustrations of the primordial excess, the glee of violence. Barbaric, sweet and sticky and ecstatic, just like the pre-historic wars were, but not mechanical, not absent-minded, not jogging suits, not plastic bags. In confusing the two, I am increasingly convinced the Kosky/Wright production misunderstood its role, and took part in the creation of gore, in titillation. It was competing with the images, trying to find a new angle, perhaps (although I doubt) re-sensitize us: in that respect, it was all about the internal audience equilibrium of emotion and revulsion. If there was any genuine banality there, it was the guilty banality of spectatorship, banality the audience may have been attempting to exorcise through submission to ever more disturbing images. And the point at which these images we are creating to ourselves become more excessive, more disturbing than anything likely to occur in real life, we are making a form of very simple, primary-coloured pornography: images for emotional masturbation.

To try to reduce the pain of others to the interchangeable familiar images, Baudrillard’s circular simulacra, is to deny them their particularity, to reduce them to symbols pointing at our own, limited experience that they sit squarely outside of. Far from being an exercise in sympathy, observing extreme suffering, arising from extreme consequences, is a deeply alienating experience. There is no more distant other than the person undergoing a pain we cannot even imagine, in circumstances profoundly distant from ours. By drawing on our bank of images, The Women of Troy gets implicated in another, more complex story.

2. The political in the theatre, it has been noted, does not consist of topics, but of modes of perception, of sign usage – theatre as a refuge from and an opposition to the information-conveying of the mass media that shapes our common reality. “It is a fundamental fact of today’s Western societies that all human experiences (life, eroticism, happiness, recognition) are tied to the consumption and possession of commodities (and not to a discourse)”, writes Hans-Thies Lehmann in Postdramatic Theatre. “This corresponds exactly to the civilization of images that can only ever refer to the next image and call up other images. The totality of the spectacle is the ‘theatricalization’ of all areas of social life.” The citizen becomes defined by spectatorship.

If fiction and reality merge, it is not because, as is often deplored, we mistake news for invented imagery, but because the act of communication has been eroded by the separation of the event from the perception of the event. There is no longer an accountable sender, and an accountable receiver, connected through communication, just pure, mass transmission of information, Thus the continual presentation of bodies that are abused, injured, killed through isolated (real or fictive) catastrophes creates a radical distance for passive viewing: the bond between perception and action, receiving message and ‘answerability’, is dissolved. We find ourselves in a spectacle in which we can only look on.

Two productions the 2008 theatre season is ending with are both, in their own ways, questions of reaction and response to images of the unpicturable. Both are equivocally successful, but these are difficult, worthwhile attempts. Both exemplify the tendency of postdramatic theatre to withdraw from the reproduction of images into which all spectacles ultimately solidify, shifting instead towards non-emphatetic theatre understood as a situation within the totality of our world. The energy curve of the performance eschews the dramatic arc, and turns calm and static. That both of these performances “have nowhere to go” after the explosive start can only be seen as a formal error if we are expecting drama of the pain of others, employed to make us feel familiar feelings.

Lehmann notes:
“[In] a theatre that is no longer spectatorial but instead is a social situation (…) a reversion of the artistic act towards the viewers takes place. The latter are made aware of their own presence and at the same time are forced into a virtual quarrel with the creators of this theatrical process: what is it they want from them? The aesthetic object hardly has any substance any more but instead functions as a trigger, catalyst and frame for a process on the part of the viewer. Logically, the spectators get the theatre they 'deserve' individually through their own activity and willingness to communicate. Following visual art, the theatre turns back to the viewer.”

3. Since contemporary European theatre is my cup of tea, particularly when it leans towards intellectual, formally clever, or Germanic, I had high hopes for the Red Stitch production of Christian Lollike's The Work of Wonder (original title: The Wonder: The RE-Mohammad-TY Show), staged by Andre Bastian. I was expecting to like it in the face of a whole disapproving world. Instead, I left East St Kilda aggravated, yet confused about the core of its failure. If nothing on that stage added up, was the text, the milieu, or the director to blame?

The Work of Wonder.

As it usually happens when a production does not, in any way, speak to me, I tried to view it with all sorts of different eyes; perhaps it speaks to someone else. Finally, I found my clef browsing through video clips of a Danish production of the same play. The Work of Wonder is staged as a chaotic talk-show, of that semi-intellectual poseur and attention-seeker kind Europe abounds with; different characters are broadcast in on a large screen, and there is a great deal of dancing to rock music. And suddenly it worked. The long exposition about 9/11 being the greatest work of art, with the counter-argument that the famine in Africa is greater, more artistically coherent, larger number of victims, no set beginning nor end…, was now a mirror of another, self-satisfiedly smart-arse society; and every time the Hollywood actors interjected to tell us that, when we want to hear a story about others, we really want a story about ourselves, we had to agree, then look down in shame because it was exactly what we were getting.

There is a cohesion between the stage action and the audience Weltanschauung in this configuration that allows for Lollike's extremely complex decision to change tune in the last quarter, and suddenly present us with a carefully enacted pain of others. An American woman whose fire-fighting husband is missing; a Chechen schoolboy hostage; a Somali woman in a rape camp; and Mohammad the terrorist. Having had to agree, theoretically, on the moral incongruity of pain spectatorship, we are suddenly getting our work experience.

My introduction of a production by means of another production was, perhaps mainly, to absolve playwright Lollike. I would not dare insinuate that there is one right way of doing this play (or any other) – merely that the Red Stitch incarnation was an exceptionally confusing failure to make sense. It is a reasonable assumption that Bastian could not communicate his intentions to the actors, but a greater problem is that he does not seem to know, or care about, his audience. It would be very difficult for any group of Australians, and particularly the Red Stitch audience (which is only a slightly more left-leaning MTC crowd), to relate to the supreme cynicism with which Central Europeans, having spent the 1990s with bloodshed on their doorstep, observed the carnivalesque combination of schmaltz and military porn that poured in through the US media after 9/11. The collapse of the Twin Towers, in this country, was taken very personally. The sense of identification was incommensurate, perhaps, but nonetheless real, and distinctly opposed to the smirking distance Mitteleuropeans assumed, allowing for quick dissipation of compassion once neo-cons started orchestrating minor world wars. As a result, Stockhausen's statement in 2008 Melbourne sounds eerie, charmless.

Lollike's is a cynical play looking for a cynical audience. Red Stitch's is a sentimental audience looking for emotional cues. In the last, semi-serious quarter, there is palpable relief in the audience as the sentimental catharsis finds its centre, not merely against Lollike's intent, but quite consistently undermining any other organisational logic that may form in the production. More unforgivably, Bastian locates the intellectualizing cynicism of the first part entirely in the disaffected world of clubbing juvenile artists, alienating the uncomfortable. In doing so, it fails on all fronts. It creates a play that leaves our predisposition for emotional porn shaken but solid, and outsources the discomforting hypocrisy entirely into the world of some other, unlikeable others.

The Work of Wonder.

4. The main aspect of The Bell Shakespeare / Queensland Theatre Company co-production of Heiner Műller's Anatomy Titus Fall of Rome, which has by now travelled the country, is its nonchalance. For a work of theatre in which limbs are constantly shed, blood spurted, and heads offed, it is shockingly lightweight. In the words of the inimitable Alison, it comes close to jolly japes about mutilation.

Earlier this year, mourning over an off-mark treatment of a dramatic text, I was reprimanded for not accepting the authorship of the director, a constructive criticism if there ever was one. Leaving aside Shakespeare, leaving aside Műller, leaving aside Elizabethan theatre and leaving aside Bell Š, shedding layers of context, culture, intent, what remains is an unusually interesting production. It is, strangely enough, the most Australian theatre piece I have ever seen.

Műller is one of those dark dudes whose work is infinitely performed in Europe, but who doesn't grace local stages often, putting him in the honourable company of Ionesco, Kane, Srbljanović, Genet. There is political, historical and moral complexity in his work, little cathedrals of thought, that may be too teethy, too disillusioned, too detached for this same 2008 Melbourne that cannot bond with Stockhausen. And the audience is not to be ignored. I have noticed that I react differently to the same theatre production depending on the milieu, depending on the publicity that coats it, the introduction notes, geared to different theatre-goers. What looked, in Zagreb 2008, like an intelligent, playful take on epic story-telling, looks, in Sydney 2009, like a danger of four hours of feelgood. If up-to-date cynicism fails in Red Stitch, how would East German, pre-1990 pessimism fare?

Instead, the Bell Š/QTC production manages to shape a fully local version of the same spirit, turning heavy disillusionment into nihilism lite. In the most insightful review to date, Alexis Harley notes that Anatomy Titus is, above all, a sabotage, a commentary on the inappropriateness of Titus Andronicus as an aesthetic achievement. Bell Š goes one step further: it is a sabotage of the viewing experience, in a way that is, for once, neo-Brecht for the local climate. If The Women of Troy is a highbrow employment of the aesthetic spirit of Rotten.com or Vice Magazine, Anatomy Titus is Verfremdung of Rotten. There is no gore catharsis: there is only gore alienated. It is stupendously inconsistent, with such consistency that it needs to be taken as intentional. The theatricality is brought in and dismissed, in moments of elevated acting, in verbatim employment of stage language; but so is the pared-down sobriety that would give modernized dignity to the same inappropriateness. If, instead of women, men are raping men with blue eye shadow, this is to de-sentimentalize the victim-woman and, in Harley's words, “to avert the terrible possibility that the rape may, to our porn-jaundiced eyes, seem sexy”. We are miles away from the locker and the vomit. What we get are a bunch of relaxed, playful young men enacting cartoon violence and pronouncing Elizabethan verse, with the same nonchalance with which, in other parts of the country, they will make jokes about the suffering of some coloured, distant people over barbecue, yet take the inconsequential melodrama of their own society seriously. The stretch between the insular she'll-be-right-mateship and the vague imperative of historical empathy are jammed into a beautiful image of contemporary Australian confusion.

Anatomy Titus. John Bell, Christopher Sommers, Steve Rooke.

There is no solace of beauty on this stage, no comfort of lyrical coherence. Just the futile, circular enactment of futile, circular violence, both rendered shabby and meaningless as a result. The play opens in a plywood box covered in gigantic red stains. As the bucket of fake blood is smeared across actors' bodies, as we come to expect each stain to be matched with a slaughter, the historical repetition of bloodshed is paired up with its repetition on stage, on this set, night after night; and then a moment of silliness, a gollywog doll or John Bell as Titus with a chef's hat, will shatter any cloud of sombre reflection this may have sparked on the purposefulness of our theatre-going, of our spectatorship. Blood-drenched books used as the only prop, apart from a plastic bucket of blood and a few kitchen items, reinforce the point. Larrikin irreverence at its disturbing finest. This is theatre strongly aligned, perhaps unexpectedly and perhaps accidentally, with the critique of the society of spectacle.

<>Anatomy Titus. Christopher Sommers and Steve Rooke.

5. This brings us to another interesting question: was this an intentionally smart reading of Müller, or just my maverick reading of the production? Much of the local criticism has interpreted the production as the inability of a major company to make dark, visceral theatre. In a parallel universe, in 2006 Croatian National Theatre did a first mainstage production of Kane's Crave in the country. Visual data look promising enough, yet the reviews were uniformly negative: the stage was too big, the staging was wrong, there is a right way of doing Kane, this wasn't it. Considering that, technically, there isn't a right way of doing Crave, the sum of criticism could be summed up as a lament from the indy-minded: Sarah Kane is ours. A major theatre, the logic goes, has no freedom of interpretation. A radical playwright is re-invented as an untouchable classic.

Coupled with the shocked negative reaction by more conservative critics, in both cases, two sides are united in disapproval of this bridging of worlds. Quick dismissal closes an important argument, that of the place of invention within major theatre companies. Whether the Bell Š audience appreciates the point is another question altogether. Although, considering the numbers the company attract, and the variety within their audiences (that comes with numbers), I would imagine that enough audience members would understand the stage goingons, that the production is speaking to someone the way The Work of Wonder could not.

More importantly, its programming opens up the possibility that Anatomy Titus will contribute to the cultivation of another mainstream theatre audience, something this country badly needs.

The Work of Wonder. By Christian Lollike. English translation by Greg Hanscomb. With Dion Mills, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter & Chris Saxton. Director: André Bastian. Choreographer: Peta Coy. Set Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting Design: Stelios Karagiannis. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 19 Nov – 20 Dec.

Anatomy Titus: Fall of Rome, A Shakespeare Commentary. By Heiner Müller. Translated by Julian Hammond. Director: Michael Gow. Design: Robert Kemp. Lighting design: Matt Scott. Composition and sound design: Brett Collery. With John Bell, Robert Alexander, Thomas Campbell, Peter Cook, Scott Johnson, Nathan Lovejoy, Steven Rooke, Christopher Sommers and Timothy Walter. Bell Shakespeare and Queensland Theatre Company. Malthouse Theatre, Nov 26 – Dec 6.

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Review: The Zombie State

This review has been published in Laneway.

In its best moments, The Zombie State is Saturday night in the CBD.

At a cultural low point in my life, when I used to catch the glorious 4.30am Night Rider to Frankston, it was my weekly dose of the strangest of the Melbourne microcosmos. Nightshift workers, hospitality plebs, aggressive Frankstonians, vomiting girls, the desperate homeless that couldn’t pay their way out of Swanston Street that night, young accountants drinking their way out of existential angst, business tourists, casino winners and casino losers, all mingled in a haze of bile, spit, alcohol fumes, violence, money, vomit. I would escape to the KFC bouncers (another Saturday night phenomenon), a small, pacifist Sikh micro-community, who fed me spicy chicken with vegetarian detachment. The climax of the ride home, which inevitably involved brawls, singing and attempts at backseat intercourse, was the passage down Carlisle Street in St Kilda, when the entire bus would open the windows to shout abusive nonsense at the sex workers (who responded with comparative grace). And I would wonder about the personas these monster people assumed in daylight.

The Zombie State is the same barely controlled human grotesque. It flirts with the zombie horror genre, leaning on its own fear of the mindless crowd, the collective loss of reason. It’s the story of Prime Minister Kevin’s orchestration of Summit 2021, during which aloof teenagers overdose, clairvoyants foretell doom, Crown Casino cleaners clean, zombies dance themselves to death, Night Rider passengers are abducted for underground experiments and a posse of Persephones fight killer seagulls.

As long as the text is muffled, pinched and distorted through the enormous stage activity, as long as the setting, characters and context are barely approximated, it is an Artaudian phantasmagoria of associative illogic, a visual and aural feast as assaulting to the senses as it is delicately teasing to the mind. There is more than a pinch of the post-pretty European to Daniel Schlusser’s direction: that many of these actors are fundamentally playing themselves is not insignificant.

The grand and furious nightmare of The Zombie State was initially conceived as verbatim theatre, drawing upon workers’ submissions to the Howard government’s Commission for the Living Wage, and the line between mundane naturalism and hysterical parody is as sharp and thin as it was on Swanston Street on those cold Saturday nights, when structured mating rituals disintegrated into an orgy of publicly discharged bodily fluids, when healthy, acceptable business aggression morphed into senseless street fighting, and vegetarian KFC bodyguards seemed the most approximate flotsam of orderly humanity.

In terms of the sheer imagery Zombie State generates, there is enough in these 75 minutes to occupy a curious mind for weeks. It is passionately theatrical, with a cast of 26 (huge for Melburnian standards) fluidly moving through the glass cubicles, projections, backstage recordings and sound curtains that build into an experience that’s visceral, immediate, and decidedly un-television.

Alas, the script is the weakest part of the show, and the ending, played straight and political, catapults a mesmerising experience into the realm of didacticism. The Zombie State, for all its expansive, warm illusion of chaos, carefully walks the rope stretched between broad social farce and anti-dramatic fantasia, not giving in to either until the end. Both paths, hoinwever, are essentially neverending, the only possible conclusions being either implosion or explosion, theatre turning onto itself or onto the audience.

Instead, it reveals its political undergarments, with an unfortunate, politically hammy question mark that bogs down what had until then successfully remained mid-air with levity and infinite grace. In retrospect, the entire play looks tainted with programmatic politics, all those moments of social-realist dialogue suddenly springing up in the mind, the playfulness receding, the grand oneiric beauty lost with one sweep of the writing hand. While a zombie is spurting blood in a vague waiting room with an egg slowly frying on the back screen, the dentist can torture him for not having health insurance: our social sensibility is fully activated, but our sensuousness nourished nonetheless. But when Prime Minister Kevin declares that choosing zombidom allows him to rule the country without needing sleep, that delicate tickle of counterpointed images and words is shot down with a loud bang.

As strange as it may sound, Schlusser’s theatre could have been more successful had it completely renounced text. It flirts with the barely controlled plotless chaos of European performance collectives, building powerful effects out of images alone, using text as only one layer of the performancescape (something rare and needed in Australian theatre), but ultimately returns to the dictate of the writer’s message, dismantling its own battle machine. And yet, despite its flaws, I don’t remember the last time it was so exciting to be in the theatre in this city. By all means, this is a production not to miss, a rare gem of near-Regietheater in Melbourne.

The Zombie State by Ben Ellis. Directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes: Kate Davis. Lighting design: Niklas Pajanti and Danny Pettingill. Sound design: Darrin Verhagen. Melbourne Workers Theatre and Union House Theatre. Union Theatre, Melbourne University, September 17-27.

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On accents and other forms of realism: a mini essay.

1. A few weeks ago, my review of Hoy Polloy’s production of Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found appeared on vibewire.net:

“Two of the things ostensibly most cherished in a work of art are battling throughout the Hoy Polloy's production of Fin Kennedy's How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. On the one hand, the universal relevance of the questions and answers presented. On the other, the evocative and resonant portrayal of a time and place.

In translating art, be it literature or a play, one has a peculiar problem of deciding just how much local colour to keep, how far to stray from literalness. While in cinema unintrusive conveying is relatively easy, in literature this may require a catastrophe of footnotes; and in theatre, naturalism.

The entire first act of How to Disappear… is an agony of accents and costumes, wrung and turned and stretched down to an inch of its life by a relentless pursuit of verisimilitude. It takes the second act to realise that no, this was not obligatory. The play doesn't dictate realism, quite the contrary, the text itself is a nightmare of confused faces, hallucinatory places, contradicting motives. It is as set in London as it could be in Sydney, or on the Moon. That the second act almost redeems the first is due to its rebellion from the style of the production, the fact that Hoy Polloy allow it to be something other than British television. For the entire first act, we are progressively more confused: if this is objective life, what is going on? In which order? Why are characters such clichés, and how can this Mike the Deus Ex Machina character be taken seriously by anyone? What should we feel, why?

In this naturalistic hell, it is good to ask why do it in the first place. It is, for one, immensely hard. Film has free access to the recognition, to the synthesis of memories and associations, endlessly triggered by details: the scenery, the facial traits of the local populace, the gesture, the weather, the textures, the sounds. The play, creating the world anew in the black box, must conspire with the audience to allow for the sparse staging elements to stand for the world of details the audience may not even be familiar with. We need to work together. And so, the first act of How to Disappear… is one big effort to distil a quotidian London from the strange string of events, semi-realistic costumes (but recognisably slack Australian tailoring), and shaky accents which travel the British Isles in order to accumulate credibility.

Hoy Polloy: How to Disappear…, Melbourne (Au), 2008. Photo: Tim Williamson.

I am highly against theatrical acting in accents. I imagine that deftness with accents is bread and butter to local actors, but it helps neither the play nor the acting to have them stumble around Commonwealth as if in a farce. All the usual problems are present here: the acting suffers, the sense of inconsistency abounds – why does everyone feel the need to try on an Irish accent? – and, most importantly, it creates a high wall between our time and space, and that of the play, with the result feeling a bit like sitting in front of some imported BBC show. I left the theatre wondering why it made me feel so little. The text was so strong. As a person who once thought about disappearing herself, I thought I would feel its breath on my neck. Instead, its energy was dissipated in a hopeless chase of details.

And why? When a play is showing a mirror to its context, and skilfully breaks reality down into minuscule details, like Ranters Theatre recently did with The Wall, there may be a rationale, but if a play is already striving towards a universal message, why not try to bridge the gap, climb the wall?

David Passmore probably gives the most consistent performance, both in mood and accent, holding the play together with his omnipresence on stage. Michael F Cahill's performance is of equally high standard, but the remaining three actors struggle to represent an entire world of strange, half-hallucinatory yet unmistakably British people. And who can blame them?”

2. Quoting the above in toto should contextualize the comment made by John Richards, also quoted in toto:

Despite that fact that this reply may give your “review” more importance than it warrants, I feel compelled to correct you on a couple of points. As a recent viewer of this production my estimate of the number of accents used is that there were only two Irish accents (the Priest and the Nurse). While there were a couple of American accents, one Scottish and one Ukranian, the majority of accents were English. I wonder what you would have said about Hoy Polloy’s Shining City, set in Dublin – perhaps too many English accents?

“It is as set in London as it could be in Sydney, or on the Moon.” The play is specifically set in London and Southend, nowhere else. Neither Sydney nor the moon have equivalents to Southend and its world-famous pier. It would be interesting to hear the playwright’s opinion of altering its locale to these inappropriate settings.

3. This is a belated response, due to personal reasons of all sorts. I wanted to have space to think breezily about the questions of setting, verisimilitude, and theatrical devices. I would encourage further comments, because I’m not an old conservative with opinions set in stone. None of this should be very smart, nor new to anyone who dedicated five minutes to the same question. I am simply replying.

4. The theatrical reality is built from stratch, just like no world is pre-given on the white sheet of paper. Faced with the impossibility of total re-imaging, theatre resorts to the more or less intelligent employment of few selected objects, sign-posting with more or less precision. The economy of theatrical time means that a play simultaneously builds a reality, and tears it apart to show how it leaks, how it creaks, what it is made of. It builds a cathedral out of signs, and tears it down with a few precise blows.

5. It seems erroneous to me to consider the choice setting to be a simple tick of a box. A play, first of all, can never be set in (eg) London, not even when it’s set in London. Unless it’s literally produced and staged in London, and even then it is a complicated operation. A play is set in a black, abstract space. The Southend pier cannot be brought into this space, no matter how pure our intention, it can at best be re-created on a blank canvas. There is no less artifice, therefore, in putting London into the play, than in putting in Sydney, or the Moon. The play is always primarily in a non-place, built from scratch.

The theatre audience enters the theatre always somewhat aware of stepping into a different place, always prepared to look for signs. Keeping the play within its city limits is the easiest of the options, because the objects and ideas do not need to be transferred far, and because their meaning is familiar to the audience. The farther out we move (in cultural, rather than necessarily geographic terms), the harder it becomes to bring the right objects, right ideas, and convey the right space/time. Subtlety is lost depending on the attention to detail demanded: if a sign needs to be understood, it may need to be literalized to the point of banality. Consider, for example, the difficulties in conveying Eastern Europe to Australia. It is normally done with permed blonde girls, tasteless white or pink skimpy attire, strong accents, frequent smoking, references to communism or poverty. These are not signs found within an Eastern European theatre production to denote hereness. Depending on the transfer within time, the signs may be: packaging and brand names, slight accents, a picture on the wall, or complete lack of costumes.

In Union Theatre House’s production of Attempts on Her Life, the space evoked is an underground station. Michael Magnusson, however, saw a vague airport lounge instead. This is in no way a flaw in the set design, but a simple consequence of our different experiences, and the images we recognise. Was our understanding of the production in any way impaired if our mind substituted one cold, impersonal space with another? Certainly not. In Young Vic’s production of The Good Soul of Szechuan, critics have lauded the modernisation of setting, from a hungry early-20th-century China to the modern, capitalist Szechuan. However, the only signs within the stage design are modern cement factory uniforms and equipment, signs in hanzi, and the engulfing bare plywood that the entire theatre appears to be made of. To a different eye, the stage may well signify Hunan, or Guizhou instead; or Taiwan of the 1980s, or 1950s Japanese factory employing only Chinese workers. Would it be possible that the set designer is making a complex reference to these locales and the working conditions? Of course. We happen to be concluding: Szechwan; but there is nothing in black box that unmistakably says so.

Union House Theatre: Attempts on Her Life, Melbourne (Au), 2008.

Young Vic: The Good Soul of Szechuan, London (UK), 2008.

6. There is, at the same time, more to these signs than simple place-or-time-making. ‘Eastern Europe’, as described above, also means, depending on the eye of the beholder: poor, uneducated, prostitution, traditional femininity, war scars never heal, we should restrict immigration, etc. Combined with theatre’s economy of signs, this is dangerous semiotics. To control the general shape of meanings created in the black box means taking full notice of the multiple resonance of the few objects placed inside. I have witnessed the confusion of European spectators when faced with the portrayal of Australian middle-class torpor and delusions in Don’s Party: swearing, casual attire (shorts! singlets!), and anti-elitist attitude made the class profile of the characters rather murky to the continental eye. Many spent the evening trying to detect whether the conflicts stemmed from different social standing of various characters.

Yet this flexible sign-posting can also easily be played with. Can we produce a classic play without ersatz costuming? Numerous independent theatre continue to do so, with smart costumes that follow the general shapes of times, rather than insist on silk stockings and layered petticoats. Looking into a sparsely furnished black box, mind easily adopts associative logic, finding resonance with small details. A lamp here, a table there, a lacy parasol and hair tied up, and Chris Goode’s Sisters have been fully 19th-centuried. Music is another imprecise clue: Gypsy-sounding music can convey Romany culture enough for our purposes; it is not uncommon to employ classical music mismatching both era and locale, to stand for history; and a modern soundtrack has hardly re-situated a 19th-century play into yesterday.

Hayloft Project: Spring Awakening, Melbourne (Au), 2007.
Photo: Jeff Busby.

In The Good Person of Szechuan, a few interesting choices of this kind were made, with different levels of success. Cross-racial (or blind) casting was employed, although – and this is significant – most viewers would probably notice a South-Asian and an African man first, and only then realise that the entire remaining population of Szechwan is Caucasian. Here is an example of a sign that can easily be ignored if treated right: suspension of disbelief in the black box regularly allows us to watch actors of all shapes and colours; the same way in which we do not object to differently-built and –looking people playing family members. The cast of The Good Person have been sufficiently homogenised in acting for their racial differences to appear no more significant than those of a classroom of children.

Refusing to cast only East-Asian actors does not, pay attention, relocate the good person outside Szechuan; the choice of accents nearly does. Judging from past treatments of Russianness and Middle-Easternness, it would not be unreasonable to expect an Australian production to demand faux-Asian-English lilt from everyone involved. The British production, quite the contrary, makes most of the cast don a lower-class-British accent – as if their poorness is not sufficiently alluded to in the play. Prostitute Shen Te, notably, speaks in one of those good-natured, television-poor sort of stretched, slow, womanly accents, roughly of the Northern English kind, switching to proper theatrical enunciation whenever tough male cousin Shui Ta appears. The variety of local colour complicates the question of locale very much, but this is not all. The semiotic resonance of this teeming mass of naturalistic British poor, helped with Jane Horrocks’s melodramatic acting (which in this case may be a consequence of accent, rather than vice versa), unfortunately results in the entire production looking rather kitchen-sink to anyone acquainted with the British tradition of social melodrama. The resultant play loses Brecht’s epic, sombre qualities and turns into a pretty dire politicking soap-opera, doused in preachy moralism and cheap sentiment. (Even getting a good Brecht play right requires a merciless lack of pathos.)

Young Vic: The Good Soul of Szechuan, London (UK), 2008.

The sign language of the text remains the one set hardest to tinker with. It is not merely a joke here, a poignancy there. Classical plays are full of clever quips that don’t automatically enthral today’s audience, and social cues that go unnoticed. Translation flattens local colour, time murders references to current affairs. Too often, everything in a production has been fine-tuned except the text. In Goode’s Sisters, an excellent restoration of a text, two country officers argue over the meaning of escalope; is it meat, or a kind of onion? One is probably better off not knowing that, in the original text, they were confusing two Caucasian dishes, cheharma and cheremsha. This argument is not about cuisine, but commanding respect for being worldly, experienced.

The Pain and the Itch, recently staged by Red Stitch Actors Theatre, is a play clearly set in California yesterday morning (as long as yesterday morning is also Thanksgiving). The text points it out relentlessly, with references to those lower-class people who voted Bush situating it rather precisely in between the parliamentary and presidential elections; and the production responds by sticking a thick American accent on each and every actor. Inky, a Reagan-era satire of American consumerism recently seen at Theatreworks, treats the same genre accordingly. The problem, in this case, is that no matter how bravely Australian actors pursue their accents – and they do it quite well, relatively speaking – I have not yet witnessed a play in which the actors aren’t obviously putting most of their focus into accents. In The Pain and the Itch, there is a noticeable point towards the last third of the first act, when everyone finally relaxes and starts acting first, and speaking second. In How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, that moment never arrives for most of the cast. In Inky, the production is greatly helped by the delicious Kellie Jones in the title role, first, who acts like she was born backstage, and the focus of the play, second, which is a sort of Fight Club for girls before a satire of manners.

Gate Theatre and Headlong Theatre:
Sisters, London (UK), 2008. Photo: Simon Kane.

The purpose of this quick, upper-class Californian dialogue, may I suggest, lies less in poetical treatment of the rhythms and vocabulary of the language, and more in illustrating the breezy, lite verbose yet hollow communication even intimately connected persons engage with. Making a witty, effortless and fundamentally meaningless exchange of quips sound heavy, rehearsed, focused on, betrays the very reason why the dialog is on stage. And in a resonant black box, where every small sign and gesture is replete with meaning, this is big stuff. The audience can see which way they should suspend belief, but it turns into theatre where too much work is required from the auditorium.

7. Simply speaking, there is no one sign for time, place, emotion or moral. From the clues given, the audience patiently builds the cathedral. The suspension of disbelief can work wonders: in independent theatre groups, we accept young actors playing elderly roles; in established ensembles, we let middle-aged actors play youths. Cross-racial casting leans on this capacity of theatre to favour performative over objective reality. Theatre-makers, even playwrights, can learn to harness the multiplicity of signs generated in this make-believe. Genet’s girls can be played by boys, Srbljanovic’s children by grown-ups.

8. It seems to me that to argue that ersatz accents are required for a play to stay in Southend and London is akin to demanding poor accents in Szechuan, as if to stop Brecht’s characters from inadvertently getting wealthy. It seems suspiciously like a lack of trust in the play itself to demand verisimilitude in an environment where it is near-impossible, to preserve something that may never risk getting lost. Chekhov’s plays are never less Russian for not being performed with thick immigrant accents – just avoiding the comical clichés of the multicultural soap that we are now familiar with. Had How to Disappear… been played in a moonscape, would it be any less set in London? Perhaps it even would (although the spectator who concluded that the play was a Sci-fi piece set on the moon would be a very unusual person indeed). But would it speak any less of London? I doubt.

The Pain and the Itch was originally presented by Red Stitch with most of the play acted in underwear. At the very end, when the characters have been completely exposed in their bickering, hollow human littleness, they finally appear dressed, coiffeured, proper. I know this because we were told. However, I saw a different play. Bruce Norris, the author of the play, had found out about the underwear, and complained to the company, which decided to have the actors wear plain black clothes instead. The effect, suffice to say, was completely lost. Compared to the harm done to the play with the forceful employment of accents, I would not say that the underwear took much away. If anything, it strikes me as strange that the author himself would have so little faith in his play as to consider that his characters could be undressed with a simple directorial decision. In our stoic black box, painted red for the occasion, there were more than plenty of road signs pointing that the play was not about a near-nudist family. Just like we would never conclude that these wealthy Americans lived in a brothel. That Inky is set in a half-apartment, half-boxing ring did not make the audience tear its hair out in confusion: it was the play itself that was both a document of quotidian life and a boxing match.

Red Stitch Actors Theatre: The Pain and the Itch,
Melbourne (Au), 2008. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson.

What all the plays mentioned have in common, and I myself have only realised now, is being productions of successful texts from far away: either in time, space, or mindset. The reasons why Inky is a thoroughly successful play, while The Good Soul of Szechuan somewhat schmaltzy and spineless, are more complex than my little essay can dwell into. However, it is this faithfulness to the effect, rather than the external form of the play, that separates a good theatrical moment from a merely decent one. To be careful, but not literal, is all I can recommend. To stay on the safe side of brave, would it not be possible to learn from the way independent theatre approximates costumes and set, and approximate accents in order to protect the actors’ expressive range (the way Tory Rodd sort of did in How to Disappear…, speaking in that polite, closed upper-middle Australian English)? Are there not more than two ways to go?

How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, by Fin Kennedy, directed by Paul King, Sound design by George Bisset.With Michael F Cahill, Glen Hancox, Helen Hopkins, David Passmore and Tory Rodd. Hoy Polloy Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne (Au), 23 May – 7 June 2008. Season ended.

The Pain and the Itch, by Bruce Norris, directed by Gőrkem Acaroglu. Design by Anna Cordingley. With Sarah Sutherland, Daniel Frederiksen, Brett Cousins, Andrea Swifte, Terry Yeboah, Erin Dewar, Oregen Guilloux-Cooke and Fantine Banulski. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne (Au), 30 April – 31 May 2008. Season ended.

Inky, by Rinne Groff, directed by Jacquelin Low. Set design by Emily Collett. Costume design by Doyle Barrow. With Kellie Jones, Eleanor Howlett and Roderick Cairns. Original music by Wintership Quartet. Theatreworks, Melbourne (Au), 22 May – 8 June 2008. Season ended.

The Good Soul of Szechuan, by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by David Harrower. Directed by Richard Jones. Set by Miriam Buether. Costume by Nicky Gillibrand. Light by Paule Constable. Music by David Sawer. With Steven Beard, Linda Dobell, Gareth Farr, Adam Gillen, Shiv Grewal, Jane Horrocks, Merveille Lukeba, John Marquez, Sam O'Mahony-Adams, David Osmond, Susan Porrett, Sophie Russell, Liza Sadovy, Tom Silburn and Michelle Wade. Young Vic, London (UK), 8 May – 28 June 2008.

Sisters, by Anton Chekhov. Adapted and directed by Chris Goode. Design by Naomi Dawson. Lighting design by Anna Watson. With Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick, Tom Lyall and Melanie Wilson. Gate Theatre in co-production with Headlong Theatre, London (UK), 5 June – 5 July 2008.

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