Tag Archives: formal inquiry

Three perhaps not-so-obvious points on ‘Pornography’ (the play, not the genre)

I do need to preface this comment by noting I am writing it from behind the opaque screen of a 38°C fever, and that I saw Pornography as the swine flu was comfortably settling in. It was, however, a remarkable theatrical event, for many non-obvious reasons.

1st non-obvious reason: demonstrating that an artists’ festival is not a punters’ festival
Pornography was the first MIAF 09 show to really polarise the audience. You wouldn’t know this from the mainstream press, of course. The artists and the theatre-makers hated it with a passion, calling it trite, facile, lazy, not trying hard enough, and a Brett Sheehy show. All for a reason. Kristy Edmunds has worked very hard on turning MIAF into an artsts’ festival, and artists come to MIAF expecting to see courageous, bold and innovative developments of their art shown, demonstrated. You could trace the reverberations of particular acts in the local performance for years after: Jerome Bel in Attract/Repel, Societas Raffaello Sanzio in glimpses, Forced Entertainment across the board.

As is becoming clear, that’s not Brett Sheehy’s idea of a festival. Pornography is not theatre-maker’s theatre. It’s people’s theatre. In that respect, the equivalent of last year’s Romeo & Juliet (and therefore likely to win the people’s vote this year.) To every outraged theatre-maker in the audience there were at least two exhilarated punters from the eastern suburbs, clapping themselves numb. Again, it would be easy to snark at the theatre-illiterate plebs, but that’s not what’s going on here. In this year’s festival, Pornography features as the prime example of well-made theatre: disciplined, taut, contained, focused and effective. While it is true that it breaks absolutely no new ground, formally, narratively or conceptually, therefore leaving the part of the audience that shows up with notepads and pens in a state of dismayed disappointment, it is undeniably a very well realised theatre piece.

The only complaint I have heard from the other side of the barricades, which we may term The Hawthorn Side (with a tinge of irony), has been linguistic: why has it been done in German? We would have preferred it in English. Why not bring an English production?

2nd non-obvious reason: elucidating arcane questions of translation in theatre
Let’s revisit the pedigree of Pornography: a play by Simon Stephens on the subject of the London bombings of 2005, it was certainly written in English, and there is certainly a three-way translation going on in having it performed in German and re-translated into English via surtitles on three sides of the stage, but no one seems aware that the play was commissioned by that same Hamburg Schauspielhaus, which also, naturally, gave it its first production. The question of authenticity is turned upside down if you hear Stephens himself:

It couldn’t, says Stephens, have been written for the British stage. For a start, the subject was too raw: “It was so soon after the event. I would have felt guilty about fictionalising something very real. But writing for a German theatre freed me up.” It also allowed Stephens – who usually tells heartfelt, formally conventional stories – to experiment. Nübling is a characteristically German director: “I believe in theatre being the art of images,” he says, “not only the art of texts.” And so, says Stephens, “if I had written a play with a unified narrative, cogent characters and a three-act structure, he’d have fucked it up anyway.” None of the dialogue is attributed to any particular character – it’s up to the director who says what.

There’s a whole set of explanations for why Schauspielhaus Hamburg would do so: first, German theatre is director-oriented (or production-oriented, if you so wish), and is interested in seeing what different directors do to the same texts. While English theatre is terminally text-focused, always trying to find newer and fresher plays and voices, most European theatre will revisit plays and playwrights with great frequency, since it’s the particular take on the material that is really what makes theatre. This is why a non-emerging (or non-star) playwright, so to speak, could be held in such interest. (The contrast with Abbey Theatre’s Irish production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus is striking: the production adds so little to the extraordinary text that it’s hard to see it as anything other than words on stage, and hard to imagine why seeing another production of the same kind would be a significantly different experience.)

Secondly, with about 150 publicly funded theatres presenting around 5800 productions a year (of which about 360 world premieres), German theatre industry is a big market constantly looking for new material. The question of why Germans would be interested in a London story strikes me as odd, presupposing a cultural insularity that just isn’t there in Germany. After all, I don’t walk the streets of Melbourne (as I well could) wondering why Royal Shakespeare Company would be interested in such quintessentially Slavic stories as Uncle Vanya, do I?

The translation (of words, bodies and theatre into German) here reminds us, simply, of the process of imperfect translation that always already occurs in the theatre, which is metonymical and metaphorical in its core, which always traces real world on the sides of a black box, outdoors into indoors, past era and foreign countries into locals, mismatching ages, accents, general demeanour. Since theatre, unlike cinema, cannot ever vaguely pretend to be showing unadorned, unadulterated reality, than certainly this imperfect translation becomes one of its main charms? Brueghel’s imposing Tower of Babel, the vast backdrop to the Hamburg Pornography, is one such imperfect translation of an idea: the multicultural confusion of languages and intents, causing the failure of a grand idea (or is it just vain and presumptuous?) is as good a metaphor of the London Olympics/bombings as it is reductive and silly; but certainly it takes an outside eye to draw that parallel in such simple terms?

3rd non-obvious reason: proving Peter Craven wrong
Pornography is a production for Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus, the equivalent of MTC or STC: big, well-funded public theatre with a subscriber base, production exchange/touring arrangements with other such theatres, a core ensemble of 20-40 actors, an opera and possibly a corps de ballet. This is not, in other words, a work of a lone genius in a cave: it is a big-balled production, bringing to the citoyens of Hamburg new hot writing, in style. The equivalent of the Pamela Rabe’s God of Carnage; Benedict Andrews’s The City; or the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. It demonstrates very well what the standard good mainstream theatre production in Europe looks like, and in our city, chronically starved of decent mainstream, it is no wonder that the audience was so pleased. If half of all theatre in Australia looked like that, we would have nothing to complain about.

The whinging artists about town should probably consider that all successful formal experimentation relies on an educated audience. Pornography breaks no new formal ground, true, but it revisits the existing playing space for theatre with crisp, elegant matter-of-factness, demonstrating the poetic advantages of non-naturalism, anti-realism, metaphor, symbolism, metonymy, and so forth, to anyone with a working set of eyes. It must have done more for the form than the rest of the mainstream fare together, this year in Melbourne, and it has done so by explicitly shitting on Peter Craven’s recent argument for what-is-wrong-in-the-Australian-theatre. So explicitly, in fact, that we can trace it point-by-point.

Straight? NO. Classical? NO. “Showed what theatre could do rather than what could be done with the theatre”? NO. Naturalistic and muted? NO. “Delivered, on the note, without distortion”? NO ( Nübling had changed the text, rearranged the order of the episodes, and plastered a whole Babel at the back of the stage, hey). Indeed, it had many more of the qualities that for Craven exemplify theatre “too narcissistic to grow up”. Ugly-ugly aestheticism? JUST ABOUT. “Demolition site with its smeared body fluids and blood spitting”? Sounds correct. “Cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings”? Can I mention that Tower of Babel again?

The paradox is, of course, that Pornography, with its invisible light switches, its puzzle symbolising the woes of multiculture, its Coldplay singalongs, its classroom stage space standing indifferently for houses, offices, school yards, and swanky restaurants and THEREFORE blatantly middle-fingering naturalism, has immense and palpable appeal to the same middle-of-the-road taste Craven is speaking from. It is no wonder whatsoever Craven himself reviews the production so glowingly; and yet the workings of this production seem completely lost on him, working in a frenzy to prove that it is not because, but despite, the anti-realism that Pornography is such a lovely night at the theatre.

All of which strikes me as deeply ideological, but also really, really funny.

Pornography. Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Written by Simon Stephens. Director Sebastian Nübling. Set Designer Muriel Gerstner. Assistant Set Designer Jean-Marc Desbonnets. Costume Marion Münch. Music Lars Wittershagen. Lighting Roland Edrich. Dramaturgy Nicola Bramkamp & Regina Guhl. Cast Marion Breckwoldt, Katja Danowski, Juliane Koren, Hanns Jörg Krumpholz, Jana Schulz, Daniel Wahl, Samuel Weiss & Martin Wißner. The Arts Centre, Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 15-18.

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Reviewbit: in the absence of sunlight

Local theatre has been experimenting with reception studies and things-that-make-theatre-not-film, such as site-specific performances, interactive performances, and doing things to the audience, for a little while now, and you would think we would have moved past taking such gestures as meaningful in and of themselves. Taking one person on a little tour round North Melbourne, as in the absence of sunlight does, I assumed that A is for Atlas, the company behind it (who have treated us to a solid take on Heiner Muller’s Quartet this year), would have thought through the possible problems. Eg, how will the single audience member feel about being walked around and spoken to in quite confidential terms? Will they get bored? What if they try to walk out? What if they feel they can’t walk out? What is the purpose of it all anyway?

None of those questions (and more) got answered by the one-on-one walkabout, which was not only batshit-boring, but also awkward in the manner of bad dates. The similarity, I shudder as I write, was in more than just my lack of power to cut it short. The sole performer, an otherwise beautiful woman who led me around a pub in that actorly trance in which my presence didn’t seem to matter much (why pretend to be interactive then?, I wonder), performed a quasi-confessional talk, which reminded me not little of conversations one occasionally has with insane people, and held exactly the same level of intrigue, which is to say little. Her deeply self-involved mimicry of conversation was not dissimilar from the stock-standard behaviour of a woman working very hard to be seductive: self-absorbed, even self-consciously poetic, always looking behind her back, and being charming but sort of self-gratifyingly so, emitting a kind of onanistic purr that makes the other side wonder whether their presence is even required for this game to go on.

So I switched to my usual bad-date survival mode (which is also how you deal with crazy people): I watched her carefully talk herself into a happy climax, unresponsive to her antics and thinking about what I was going to have for dinner, until she either cut the performance short to kick me out faster, or got to the natural end of one particularly inconclusive dramaturgy.

At this point, it’s worth remembering Chris Goode’s Cat Test for live art, still the classic of its genre:

The Cat Test can perhaps best be thought of as a development of the old miners’ practice of using a canary to test for the presence of carbon monoxide. (Not to be onfused with the ‘pop’ test for carbon dioxide, for which you insert a lit canary into a test tube, etc.) The Cat Test discloses liveness: an ordinary domestic cat is released into the midst of a theatre event, and if the event can refer to and/or accommodate the cat without its supporting structures breaking down — the structures of the event, not of the cat — then the event is said to be ‘live’, and is therefore disqualified from the Hampstead Theatre. If the Cat Test produces only the spectacle of Richard Griffiths shouting at the cat, a ‘let’ may be played.

As the cat of this live performance, I felt my presence rather underappreciated.

This sort of misthought failure gives a bad name to live art/hybrid/alternative/performance, which may explain why we still don’t have a short snappy name for the form. Not all is gloom, though. By making a few stretched analogies, we have just come to a litmus test of a bad date. Would it be any different if you weren’t there? *

* This may be the right moment to announce that Guerrilla Semiotics is seriously considering establishing the First Australian Award for a Hatchet Job, in the honour of Dale Peck, to advance the art of well-said controversy in this country. As you may be able to read between these lines, even mean-spirited critics like myself have come to struggle with phrasing damnation.

in the absence of sunlight. Artists: Tamara Searle, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Dayna Morrissey, Danny Pettingill, Ivanka Sokol, Xan Colman. Fringe Hub – Foyer – Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne. 24 Sep – 11 Oct.

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RW: Attract/Repel

The more I wanted to write this review quickly, the more I wanted it out and about, succint, streamlined and brilliant, the more I was tripping over my own inarticulation. The enthusiasm I had for writing seemed to derive from not knowing what it was I had to say, nor how. Why such caution before a very positive review? Because the praise I had to offer for Attract/Repel came from an unusual place; because of an avoidance of reviewing the previous show by Melbourne Town Players. Because the material does not easily lend itself to a watertight argument that can neatly encapsulate all that it does as a show. Finally because this review immediately follows a fascinating, if at times painful dialogue that grew out of a condemnatory critique of En Trance, a show that made artistic and dramaturgical choices that failed precisely where A/R succeeds.

If the foyer chatter on the opening night was anything to go by, we were in a minefield of opinions, impossible to exhaust in a 1,000-word review, no matter how well-chosen the thousand. I was midway through my annual contemplation of multiculturalism, having just found the perfect interlocutor. That, about 100 hours into the discussion, I discovered the interlocutor was more precisely the sensei, having written the text which seminally, famously, taught me all my thoughts on multiculturalism back in 2006, did not help. I was arguing with my spiritual uncle, if not exactly father, it turned out, and he was more than happy to keep challenging my hasty (but oh so quotable!) conclusions.

Terry Yeboah and Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

“Seeing a work that deals with topics I’ve spent solid three years thinking about”, I complained to Neandellus soon after, “makes it harder, not easier to write about. I have too many half-formed, unquotable thoughts.”

“Make your sensei write it”, was his suggestion. If only! Sensei (whom we’ll call ‘Ian’) declared he knew nothing about theatre, and was happy with correcting me. So I started:

Amidst the uneven, but fulsome praise for Attract/Repel circulating the foyer on opening night, it was apparent that this show’s merit arises in its slipping almost un-noticed across a series of borders that themselves are rarely ever acknowledged as such.

But ‘Ian’ was already slapping me on the wrist: “What you mean to add is: Borders which some have named the borders of whiteness, with quiet encroachments of the real into everyday fantasies of white supremacy in multicultural Australia.”

He continued: “The truths enacted through the show operated on an inversion of the assumptions presumed normal to a functional society, a logic more dependent on the potential for misunderstanding, misrecognition and mistaken identity.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” I nodded hastily, and continued:

It is quite different from The Melbourne Town Players’ previous work in not being veiled, stripping away most of the veneer of artiness, leaving the art instead. Yet A/R has been shaped with a clear eye and a strong dramaturgical hand into an exquisitely crafted work, building a rich spectrum of thought and feeling out of associative nuances. It takes courage and maturity to recognise the theatre in four people on chairs talking about their personal experience, and it was, indeed, beautifully crafted theatre. 

Four performers, fluorescent tubes, and a wall painted blackboard-black. A/R is beautifully ordinary, threateningly postdramatic perhaps, as the actors ask and answer personal questions, tell funny stories (and tales about racial stereotyping, from the butt-end of essentialising assumptions, tend to be hysterically funny), find dead ends to arguments, change direction, change key, but ultimately, and intentionally go nowhere in particular. Where was the dramatic development?, complained one person whom Ming-Zhu Hii would have, in the days of Mink Tails, labelled identifiably white. I looked at ‘Ian’ for answers, and he obliged:

“The lack of a progressive movement to a climactic denouement is one of the show’s great strengths, instead presenting a series of plateaux oscillating between affective highs and lows – disgust and desire, anger and joy, sufficient to illustrate the tenor of its thesis. It was true to the subject matter. There is no resolution to the problem – you go from feeling elated because you’re accepted, to crashing down because of some racist remark; you solve a problem, you find another. Attract, Repel.”

Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

Relieved, I could go on:

How to talk about A/R, which can be read as a very successful moment in the Australian political theatre, without getting factional? It is a beautiful work, but its strengths and innovations really shine when looked at as political theatre – and the political discourse now needed to be employed would likely be alienating. 

There is a strong nod to Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and I – far more so than to circus acts like an oak tree: the staged conversation is personal and unforced, improvised-looking rather than scripted for theatrical friction. While A/R does not quite reach the same magnitude of light-handed yet devastating effect, there is no shame in not being Jerome Bel. There are moments in the show of similar gentle, but enormous, destabilisation of effect. Right after a reasonably heavy story of racial discrimination, Terry Yeboah starts talking about his white girlfriend, and unexpectingly breaks out saying, She’s here tonight! Hi, baby!, and she responds! The effect of turning our heads back into the audience, seeing someone normal, socialised, unremarkable, in the place of a villain, belies interpretation. 

It could have so easily gone wrong many times; the politics of the effect are more noteworthy than the politics of the representation that occurred. By definition, political theatre tries to ‘make things happen’, as Caryl Churchill once said; in Michael Patterson’s book Strategies of Political Theatre, British playwrights overwhelmingly defined political theatre as theatre that has an impact on the audience, that affects them beyond the doors of the theatre building. In other words, whether what is staged is four children playing, or racial tension, is not the deciding factor in whether a theatre piece is political or not.  

By keeping the performers as performers, and the audience as audience, A/R renounces the very role of theatre as a heightened state of exception that, by definition, confirms the rule. In order to build resonance in a string of moments, anecdotes and effects that are inherently unremarkable; it strips away the entire frame of ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation that has been hanging over textual theatre like an Aristotelian hangover, and that political theatre in particular doesn’t know how to do without.  

Yet it is not all just pussyfooting detail. The interventions are real, but subtle. From the moment she draws a CHINK SCALE on the wall, rather than spitting on its implicit racism, Jing-Xuan Chan and the others proceed to explicate the variety of positions they may occupy depending on the situation. We are immediately in very interesting territory. Here, rather than mere victims of incipient racism, is an illustration of strategic essentialism.

‘Ian’ nudged me sternly: “I don’t think you understand what strategic essentialism is. In this case, it was used as a tool in the hands of skilled players on the field of identity politics, as elaborated in the discussion post-En Trance, with the provocation as much in language and speech-acts themselves.

“Like Fear of a Brown Planet?” I wondered. The the political intervention of the humorous, very light-hearted A/R, a gritty show with a smiling face, is in the performative act of saying what are to some, unsayable things – again. There is here a more serious question whether the ultimate effect isn’t lost on those audience members who found the language simply failing to align with their truth; is the alignment noticeable, recognisable when it happens? Notice the ‘again’: it is the iteration that matters, that sets down a possibility of a pattern, and that gets recognised. Without going deeper into a discussion that can get bogged along the lines of you don’t understand; it has never happened to you, which may be as correct as it is unlikely to make one any friends, it is hard to finish this point. 

‘Ian’ pondered: “One of the chief problems we have experienced coming here was the deeply normative tolerance prescribed by Australian multiculturalism. Just like the whiteness of the true Australian skin: always invisible to itself, denied, yet something for all to comply with, more or less, by degrees, for acceptance to accrue.”

I jumped in: “The mind-numbingly idiotic language…”

“I think you’ll find you mean ‘mind-numbingly essentialist’…” ‘Ian’ sighed.

Alright. The mind-numbingly essentialist language, according to which Australia was diverse because of the many cuisines on offer, the maintenance of cultural identities by the shimmying of traditional dances on Federation Square once a year, was taken extremely seriously, elevated into a sort of magical language for getting by in life. To anyone aware of how much more complicated cultural pluralism is on the ground, this was the equivalent of one infant’s babytalk imposed on all the kids in the kindergarten as the right language for that age. But here it was, an invisible, white language, neatly split into politically correct nonsense on the one hand, and bureaucratic proscription (“if you don’t like it here”, “we choose who comes to this country…”) on the other. All the messy rest, heretically non-compliant with our Platonically ideal multiculture, exeunt. 

Georgina Naidu, Terry Yeboah and Jing-xuan Chan. Photography by Naomi Wong.

This is why there was sheer thrill in A/R when acronyms FOB and ABC were discussed, points marked on the CHINK SCALE and nuances of being called ‘nigger’ dissected. It was both a reclamation and exposure (again!) of ground that was true, existing, and all but invisible. 

“All well and right,” Neandellus popped his head through the window. “But is there any formal innovation there? Is it good theatre?”

“It’s very good political theatre…” I stumbled and looked at my sensei for argumentation. He was trying to make a bed for himself under the table, and looked frankly disappointed with me:

“Performative politics – i.e. the politics are iteratively done rather than represented. Butler makes a distinction between performance and performativity. Its important not to conflate them. The formal innovation is in lack of denouement.”

“Performativity and performance. One that accrues and one that’s mimetic, right?” I was testing my argumentative powers.

“Yes”, allowed my spiritual uncle. “Sort of. It will do. Mimesis is out of fashion. Accrual is in. But the plateaux bit is important. No orgasmic endings. Just more and more plateaux and deferral of climax.”

There was nowhere for the conversation to go after that. We politely retreated, happy to know we had just seen a great show.

Guerrilla Semiotics would like to thank Ian Woodcock for his generous support during the realisation of this project.

Attract/Repel. With a cast including Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah. Music by experimental jazz guitarist Yusuke Akai. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Lighting design (inspired by Dan Flavin) by Damien McLean, with lighting concept support by Rachel Burke. Concept and direction by Ming-Zhu Hii. Producers: Nicholas Coghlan and Shalini Nair. Development Supported by Full Tilt Creative Development. The Store Room, 17 September-10 October 2009

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RW: The City

There was every reason to believe that the STC production of Martin Crimp’s The City would be one of the events of the year. Crimp is one of the best currently active English-language dramatists, whose collaboration with director Katie Mitchell has seen his reputation steadily grow over the past 10 or so years. His writing is sharp, chiselled, musical and nuanced both emotionally and linguistically: Crimp is a trained musician and a French translator, and has a fantastic ear for phrase. In the tradition of Beckett and Pinter, his is dramaturgy of undefined anxiety, wrong emotions on stage (while the right ones are always round the corner), of language as a clutter of knives, rather than a bridge between souls.

War of the Roses at the Sydney Festival in January, the paramount theatrical event of 2009, sparked extraordinary interest in Benedict Andrews’s work. A director dividing his time between STC and the Berlin Schaubühne, Andrews seems to be able to translate the Germanic theatrical tradition (intellectual, formally explosive and rigorously political) into a form that fits organically into the contemporary Australian theatre: formalist but simple, stern but light, unsentimental but beautiful. Andrews’s work brings fresh air, but never looks out of context. Having directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for the STC in 2001, and a number of playwrights of similar mind, from Ionesco to Mayenburg, Andrews seemed the most exciting choice of director to tackle The City, Crimp’s companion piece to The Country (presented by Red Stitch in Melbourne in 2005), which premiered at the Royal Court only last year.

Colin Moody, Belinda McClory in Sydney Theatre Company’s The City by Martin Crimp.
Photographer: Emma Furno

In a tense marital conversation, Clair (Belinda McClory) tells Chris (Colin Moody) about her chance meeting with Mohamed, a famous writer, whose daughter wore pink jeans and was taken away by the nurse. Chris, in response, tells her of his working day, his swipe card not working, possible lay-offs, the terrible Janette who will swindle her way up the corporate ladder. In the following scene, Jenny (Anita Hegh), a nurse, comes in to ask if their children could not play in Clair and Chris’s garden. She is their neighbour, her husband a war doctor somewhere far away, she cannot sleep from the noise. This is old Crimp territory: threatening subtext, unresolved bubbles of anxiety, wars locked outside our private garden. From one short scene to another, the stories start to loop and weave and bleed into one another: Chris’s high-school colleague has become a supermarket employee, working in the butcher’s section. Two scenes later, Chris, now laid off from work, arrives dressed in a white deli outfit. Symbolically important gifts make circles around the room. The dialogue and dramaturgy fail to solidify the characters into singular beings.

Andrews’s production is set on the happiest and the rarest of all stages, a longitudinal one, on which a wide black staircase, like a stadium, or the mirror of the audience space, has the characters climbing, walking, balancing on the edge, uncomfortably close to the spectators. The mise-en-scene is deliberately vague, sharply, self-consciously imprecise, yet the skill is always on show. Entire grand pianos appear and disappear, while the actors talk to each other from the sides of the black staircase, only their heads showing. Clair gets upset when Chris draws back from her, unconsciously, during a conversation; yet Colin Moody the actor has done no such thing. Ramin Gray’s fine production of The Ugly One, which succeeded The City at the Royal Court Downstairs, was built out of such meticulous avoidance of representation: his actors ate, drank, and played multiple characters without ever doing so. Here it is, a moment where Andrews introduces a small crumb of a continental theatre trend, or a pose, into the Australian theatre with great subtlety, almost as if setting a scene for his future work. (It is a gesture that ambitious artists in small cultures often resort to: trying to build modernity into the history of Yugoslav drama, Krleza’s Glembay cycle wrote an entire chapter of excellent late 19th-century drawing-room realism in an interlude between his expressionist plays: the former had to seep into the cultural subconscious before the latter could use them as productive compost. Indeed, only with Brezovec’s work since 2001 has Krleza’s expressionism been successfully staged.)


However, if the production doesn’t lack focus, it lacks breadth. The strength of The City, in the true Pinter fashion, hinges on creating a sense of oneiric, all-encompassing menace, in which the anxieties of marriage and parenthood conflate with the horrors of faraway wars. I have written previously on the way this anxiety played itself out in the in-yer-face theatre of Sarah Kane et alia, using Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life as a pretext: a decade later, our anxiety grown stronger and firmer, The City shares many of its most incisive traits with Michael Haneke’s Caché. The careful architecture of The City encompasses the psychological terrors of the domestic and the neighbourly, the political terrors of the wide world, and the foggy terrors of a writer’s imagination. Unfortunately, Andrews’s mise-en-scene strengthens the formalist, self-aware aspects of Crimp’s text at the expense of the framing realism. It detracts, not from its intelligence, but from its emotional impact. The result looks, somewhat unfortunately, more like a performance essay than a rounded theatrical production. That the titular city is the imaginary world of the writer’s imagination does not come as quite the frightening surprise, and when Belinda McClory says so, this explanation irons out the inconsistencies in the narrative far more than it ought to. Failing to give an emotional skeleton to the piece, Crimp’s text ends up looking like a poor man’s Pirandello. Well put together, but somewhat hollow.

Stories of writers’ inner worlds seem to be a thing de jour, if one is to judge from the proximity of this production to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. As a fellow writer, well-acquainted with the phenomenon of characters falling out of cupboards, of being distinct but structurally inconsistent creatures, of changing gender and character like a costume, I don’t think the stuff is necessarily as exciting as these writers seem to think it is. Certainly, invented people have their own fragile, amorphous but powerful existence. They steal traits from your best friends and sometimes looks uncomfortably like yourself. But on its own, this cross-dressing game can only hold so much interest. We all invent people as we go: my stepdad’s wife is not the same person as my mother; my ex-boyfriend’s former girlfriend is not me. Without real situations to frame this fragility of interpretation, all that remains is a threadbare, rather ornery hall of mirrors. Enough for an essay, indeed. Not enough for a work of art.

I should close by adding that I am being a wilful nitpick. The City is a quality production of a quality play. However, Andrews lets down both his own strengths and Crimp’s complexity in a production more faithful to a single idea that the playtext, perhaps, wants to be. While excellent in many aspects, it is not unmissable the way many of us had hoped it would be.

The City. By Martin Crimp. Director: Benedict Andrews. Set Designer: Ralph Myers. Costume Designer: Fiona Crombie. Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper. Cast: Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory, Colin Moody. Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. 29 June – 9 August 2009.

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Merriam-Webster defines pretention as an aspiration or intention that may not reach fulfillment. What we call pretentious in day-to-day life, is often a person’s attempt at something bigger than the person is capable of achieving. The gap between the intent and execution is a visible, laughable failure.

(Fail again. Fail better.)

A child learning to walk is pretentious whenever she falls. Talking in a language one doesn’t speak well is pretentious. Saying “explicate” when one only knows the meaning of “explain” is pretentious, too. Volunteering for a job one has never done before is pretentious. April Wheeler is pretentious, and so is Synecdoche, NY.

What this equation doesn’t account for is that the path to success goes through failure. That pretention is a sign of hard work. (Let’s refer from calling it ambition. Ambition often takes the easy route.) The tragedy of April Wheeler is not, as has been implied, that she and her husband had no talents, but that they didn’t strive to develop what talent they had. To assume that our gifts are finite, and fully formed at birth, is to be blind in the face of reality: dyslexic writers, hoarse singers, women who divorce at 50, Eugene Ionesco, Rosalie Gascoigne. To admire talent that’s “fully formed”, and to condemn “pretentiousness”, goes hand in hand. To cut tall poppies is to look at the result without looking at the path, to fail to appreciate the work, to fail to appreciate the courage of working harder than necessary, of searching beyond what one knows, to look at art (person, country, act) as a thing, not as a part of a process.

Perfect, beautiful objects are everywhere: our world is littered with remaints of the past, achievements of history. We could import the past and make it anew until our ears are red, and we would be surrounded with beauty, just like we can surround ourselves with modern Provincian furniture in modern Georgian houses. There is no pretention there: there is only blissful refusal to work, to seek, to fail. (Even the aesthetic failure of the nouveaux riches is a path, a process, a failure that gets better with time. The refusal of a modern Georgian should not be confused with the learning stumble of the owner.)

In the theatre, the pretention of the hopeful theatre-goer (to be enlightened, to be inculturated, to feel and learn and think) will clash with the pretention of the hopeful theatre-maker (to shatter the form, to break the rules, to shock). Two types of courage clash, and there is nothing phillistine about that. Not until we condemn pretention.

What remains, in some strange magic-realist world, is the seasoned performer, on stage for the seasoned spectator, in an intimate duet only they know the rules for. Some sort of love. Safe, blind and aloof.


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

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

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

The Black Lung boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Disappearing Number & The Age I’m In; observation on the middlebrow

1. There is nothing more dispiriting than coming out of a performance feeling exhausted, disappointed and sad, only to have to face the clamour of a delighted audience. People giving multiple rounds of applause, praising the same production for being moving, lovely or touching. For making them smile. I recently saw two, back to back.

The Age I’m In, by Force Majeure. Carriageworks, Sydney 2008.

The Age I’m In, by Force Majeure, at Carriageworks (still going), is an example of physical theatre that would not leave a hole in the world if it disappeared overnight. It is, in one word, unnecessary. It is, just like it could not be. Soundtracked with audio recordings of interviews with Australians of different age groups, it makes a diverse group of performers dance and lip-synch the responses about the joys and difficulties of life. It is a most unfortunate combination of verbatim, pedagogical, feel-good and accessible. It is dance drawn with crayons, Saturday night date theatre, and social commentary ranging from bold (7-year-olds saying cute things) to extremely provocative (vague mythologisation of the struggle against breast cancer). It doesn’t have the power of a documentary on more concrete struggles, nor the centreless, open-ended poignancy of the 7 Up series. It has also been described, over at Stage Noise, as mesmerising, clever, innovative, imaginative, witty and moving.

On the other hand, Theatre du Complicité is filling the Sydney Opera House with A Disappearing Number, according to Diana Simmonds an amazing, exhilarating experience, making one feel happy, touched, humble and smarter (if I quote Simmonds again, it has more to do with the ready availability of her in-depth, articulate reviews online than to signpost a personal dislike; I respect Simmonds’s opinion). The grand ordinariness of this production is a little harder to explain, due to its sheer foreignness to Australia. It is overwhelmingly expensive, produced, all glitz and media. However, underneath the seemingly complex narrative lines and moving screens, it is a very straight-lined story of an unhappy love, peppered with a biographical sub-plot of the maladjusted-genius genre. It has a grieving husband, some Hollywood-like, profound-sounding blabber on mathematics, pretty images and music, and the end is clearly visible quarter-way into the performance. Every element is presented in its most polished, most palatable, least surprising version: the American is a capitalist simpleton, every mathematician is out of touch with reality, every university a temple of intellectual pursuit. There is even a most calculatingly middle-of-the-road touch of post-colonial nous, discreetly pointing out that not every Indian-looking, these days, was born in India.

A Disappearing Number, Complicite. Sydney Opera House 2008.

What frustrates the most, however, is that A Disappearing Number, formally speaking, looks a bit better than The Age I’m In: good enough to confuse us into thinking it is more courageous than The History Boys, another prime example of middlebrow art as consolation. It is easier to recognise the crayon dancing in the latter as the Australian mediocre than is it to place the moving screens and layered projections of the former in its context within the formal bell curve of European theatre. A Disappearing Number, put simply, is well-informed mainstream. It is a mainstage production coming out of a place with healthy independent theatre. It collects a number of formal ideas that were ground-breaking about 10 years ago, and incorporates them with no other purpose but to showcase what has become acceptable to the middle taste in Britain. This is a good, healthy dynamics, mainstream pinching innovation, innovation becoming mainstreamed, but it makes the screens, the lights, the physical movement in A Disappearing Number no more than an educated decoration on a very proper, conservative body. It clearly does not develop organically out of the problems within the play, just like the simple maths employed does not organically jell to the story (and is not even correct: 1/2 plus 1/3 is not 2/3, etc). It relates to formal inquiry the way a faux-hawk relates to punk.

A Disappearing Number. Sydney, 2008.

What this sort of art does is coat deep ordinary mediocrity with a shroud of golden, shining glory. It reassures us that it is all very meaningful: not because profundity can be uncovered in the meaningless detail, not even because order can be discerned out of life chaos, but because we can play Beethoven over the most banal events, feelings and thoughts. The illusion of artistic depth, in both cases, is just a cloud of mystifying nonsense: mathematics and multimedia for A Disappearing Number, dance and (simpler and less expensive but still) multimedia in The Age I’m In.

2. It would require more than a short essay to question the politics of these two productions, the implications of the glorification of the great genius, of the common person, of the academia. It would require a book to argue why presenting the world without a single uncomfortable question mark narrows our worldview. Both of these two works of theatre give us exactly the same answers to unanswerable questions as the sum of our world, as it is now, does. Which amounts to no answer at all: instead, an attempt at comforting us that everything is just right. Perfect. The best of possible worlds.

It is worth remembering Kundera, who diagnoses precisely the problem in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If he calls it kitsch, and not middlebrow, the difference is in cultural temperament, I dare suggest, inessential. Middlebrow, often understood as a pursuit of simple artiness, to make us look good, is certainly sliding, nowadays if not always, into a pursuit of feelgood, of touchedness. On the level of aesthetic experience, says Kundera, Middlebrow causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes middlebrow middlebrow.” The first tear is in empathy, the second in our self-gratulatory recognition of empathy.

Middlebrow, he continues, is the absolute denial of shit. Middlebrow is that vision of the world in which nothing unwholesome or indecent is allowed to come into view. It’s the aesthetics of wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Middlebrow excludes shit in order to paint a picture of perfection, a world of purity and moral decency. Middlebrow is Nazi propaganda films of beautiful, blond children skiing down the Bavarian Alps.

Middlebrow is also, more tellingly, a categorical agreement with being. Nothing can be private, unpleasant, complex or idiosyncratic. The problem, argues Kundera, is that the world of middlebrow is the world purified of everything troubling, ugly and unwholesome. It is a picture of the world at once illogical, emotional, aggressive and demagogical in its simplicity. Everything purged outside the frame of this picture grows into monsters and returns to haunt. The logical conclusion of the Nazi kitsch is the ghetto and the concentration camp, just like the natural extension of middlebrow theatre is Sarah Kane.

3. What else to say? I have labelled shows that make other people smile as toxic, dangerous and Nazi, and if there ever was a place for me among the normal theatre audience, I’ve shut that door behind me now. I wish there was redemption past this point, a sense that I could do something more meaningful than say, be suspicious of feelgood. Be suspicious of mathematical geniuses, the wonders of academia, and history boys. There is an entire army, in Australia, that would love to see this sort of middlebrow installed as the mainstream, replacing not only brave theatre but television schlock as well. It is a lonely, unhappy place for me to be in. I don’t know.

The Age I’m In, by Force Majeure and Carriageworks. Choreography Kate Champion. Set / Lighting Designer Geoff Cobham. Costume Designer Bruce McKnvin. Sound Designer Mark Blackwell. Visual Artist William Yang. Audio Visual Producer Tony Melov. Audio Visual Technician Neil Jensen. Performers: Marlo Benjamin, Samuel Brent, Annie Byron, Tilda Cobham Hervey, Vincent Crowley, Daniel Daw, Brian Harrison, Roz Hervey, Kirstie McCracken, Veronica Neave, Tim Ohl. Carriageworks, Sydney, 26 November – 6 December.

A Disappearing Number, co-production by Complicite, barbicanbite07, Ruhrfestspiele, Wiener Festwochen, Holland Festival, in association with Theatre Royal Plymouth. Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney. Music Nitin Sawnhey. Design Michael Levine. Lighting Paul Anderson. Sound Christopher Shutt. Projection by Sven Ortel. Costume Christina Cunningham. Performers: David Annen, Firdous Bamji, Paul Bhattacharjee, Hiren Chate, Divya Kasturi, Chetna Pandya, Saskia Reeves and Shane Shambhu. Sydney Theatre, Sydney, November 19 – December 2.

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Review: Nomads

Nomads, part three in an ongoing project that started in Sydney in 2006, by Hans Van den Broeck plus dancers, is exactly the sort of theatre I love, the reason why I endure hours and hours of pretty dancing, of actorly acting, of witty dialogue and realistic set design. Every time I go through a door into a dark space with seats, I hope to see something close to Nomads. It is not the most pleasant theatre. It is, I imagine, tremendously frustrating to many. It is, first, not the kind of theatre that showcases skill: any theatre practitioner – and most theatre-goers, unfortunately, are also theatre-makers – will likely be underwhelmed. It is also not theatre that makes one feel anything much, which will inevitably frustrate any casual audience member. It doesn't tell a story, has no plot, makes no effort to lead the spectator, step by step, into a journey, the logic of each scene, or the sequence thereof, is never explained. It has all the predispositions to be labeled self-indulgent.

But. Just because this type of theatre-making, shall we call it European (although a particular kind of European, it is also not something normally found elsewhere), is not a common type of theatre-making in Australia, doesn't mean we should shun it as opaque et cetera. In fact, let me tell you how we could approach it. We could approach it like a sonata, or an early Renaissance triptych. It is certainly no more than a historical accident that we approach theatre like we approach the pilot episode of a sit-com? With minimal intellectual engagement, and infinite impatience? What if we approach it with an open mind instead, actively thinking our way through, with patience and willingness to adapt our sense of time? What if we are ready to wait, let the theatre take its time to show and tell, ready to do our own bit of work, ready to think?

Hans Van den Broeck, a psychologist by training, may be best known as one of the founding member of Les Ballets C. de la B., a freeform collective of dance extraordinaire. The overriding logic behind the project really appears to be the exploration of the relationship between Hans and the dancers, and his working methodology. At the heart of Settlement, the second stage, just like Nomads, was the very concentrated rehearsal time, two weeks with an assembled group of people, based on a strong concept, and a detailed scenario constructed beforehand. The resulting work is understood as finished, not a work-in-progress. Not unlike a real society, it is the free-form collaboration with an open, complex reality that emerges.

Settlement. Sydney, 2007.

I saw Settlement in Vienna. (To read more about the development, check Frances D'Ath's blogging on the creative process, straight from July 08.) The two performances behave according to a very similar logic, are directly comparable in the questions they ask, and the answers they offer. Both follow very literally the type of coexistence they inquire into, and, while similar, come to very different conclusions. I should have expected: settlers, nomads. While Settlement was a stationary community, a third of the space covered with tents, a brook running past, Nomads follows the performers as they sit down and leave again, sit down and leave; the first was all clogged energetic pores, the second is airy and forgetful. Both shows take the community of dancers, performers, through some typical activities: travelling, sitting down, eating, socialising, entertainment, violence, trauma management. They have some similar preoccupations: both begin with a figure of the outsider joining the group, but while Settlement closes with the outsider still largely isolated from the group, he blends in with the nomads quite quickly. Altogether, Nomads is a much more positive show (although this may be a simplistic way of putting it). It reminds us that the things we have inherited from the millennia of hunting and gathering are the pursuit of ecstasy and the ability to forget. Settlement, instead, dwelled upon the structures that bind us together.

We must not lie for the sake of others
We must respect the loneliness of others
We must combine our thoughts
We only take as much as we can use at any one time
We must look people in the eye at least once every day
We must try to laugh at least once a day
We must say audible things to one that all may share
We can contest a rule if it interferes with our sense of liberty
We should try to wear our pants inside out and back to front
We can take a nap in somebody else’s tent if the tent flap is open
We must be at first considerate
You must have your brush in hand before entering the kitchen area

-excerpt from the Settlement rulebook

I found it a little jejune, comparatively speaking, although this may be a reflection on my personal history. Coming from a federation that fell apart and into a civil war, I grew up in an artistic environment endlessly preoccupied with dissecting the fundaments of society. If there has been an idée fixe in post-Yugoslav art, it has been the question of neighbours turning against one another; the real tangibility of the threads that bind us together; the dubious stability of peace, of order; the illusory harmony of cohabitation. Settlement, in this context, merely scratched the surface of real life.

Nomads opens with performers, ragged up and saddled with boxes, milk crates, backpacks, pacing in a circle. One of them has a small child on her back, which will be discarded before the beginning of the show. From then on, a series of scenes plays out, in the big space of Carriageworks's Bay 8, on the sand, with projections covering one or two walls, and an intermittent soundscape piercing the big space made entirely of concrete, sand and light. There is no strong link between the scenes, no meaning spelled out, just the endless, prolonged, trickling continuty of people and space. It is not theatre for the easily bored and, while aesthetically pleasing, it is poles away from spectacle. It is theatre that lets the mind wander.

While there are no weak scenes in the 90 minutes of Nomads, some stand out as exceptionally potent. Once the walking circle has broken into a chain reaction of simple movements, a collective dance that the wandering outsider can join in, a makeshift settlement is established. Like a vulture, a peddler appears, offering Con-fession! Con-fession!, setting up his trolley with a microphone, a dividing screen, and a blinding light. One has sinned because she has stolen, food, clothes, thoughts and dreams. Return the box, he tells her. Nomads are not allowed to hoard. Another one falls in love with the priest. Visibly disconcerted, he tells her that there is a sacred vow, and leaves. Nikki Heywood, curious, takes his place. She too leaves after a story of a man who doesn't get laid, unable to work around the experience. While there is nothing more to this sequence, the travelling shrink packs up and leaves, there is an entire essay in it on the exclusion of professions from quotidian life, on the need to distance those who filter the detritus of normality. From executioners, entertainers and fortune-tellers to the burakumin.

The nomads turn the performance into a fashion show, with a moment of obvious analogy with Settlement: people exchanging clothes, again and again and again. There is homogenisation within the group, but also joyous collectivity, in this long dress-up-and-down. At the same time, with pictures projected on the wall, and the role-playing of the catwalk costuming, with nomads, gypsies, witches and cowboys impersonated, it is a bit of a satire on role-playing. It energises the audience, and it takes a bit of effort to calm down afterwards, continue with the slowness that's so characteristic of the show.


While Settlement had little to say on intimacy, or private life of others (whatever happened, happened inside the tents), Nomads gives a long thought to sleep, with long chains of hugging, on one hip, then the other. The chain is broken and remade as the group turns upside down, left to right, sits and shifts in discomfort. There is a need for comfort and a need for space that are clashing within this scene, like they clash when one shares a bed with another person, that exist on stage as presence, not representation. And then, the performance mutates into one of the most curious, most enigmatic parts of Nomads: a woman lies on the mattress. Within moments, other members of the community shake her off, and a careful, consensual battle for the mattress begins. With the music getting louder and louder, people push and pull the mattress in different directions, jumping on it, sneaking a few minutes of lying down, before they're shaken off by others, who don't necessarily try to steal it for themselves, just limit the time anyone gets on.

At the time, I was absolutely intent on reading it as an illustration of drug-bound communities. Managing the mattress, limiting everyone's time to minimal, seemed to be a perfect illustration of, say, acid-dropping circles, keeping in check by not allowing anyone, not even oneself, too much time unaccountable. Now, however, as I'm thinking about it more, it also appears to be a simple principle of managing commons, a scarcity. At the same time, the spinning blanket dervishes remind us that the pursuit of ectasy, trance, is something we have inherited from our nomadic past, and that major religions have sprung up in the desert for a reason. The scene closes with Lizzie Thomson, held up high on a mattress by everyone else, drawing a red door in the projected desert landscape, and knocking (it's a loud, miked knock). Joe, let me out!, she says. I'm ready! Joe, if you let me out, I'll let you in!

In the immediate aftermath, the performers, drenched in loud, energetic music, yet visibly exhausted, turn to walking into a wall. It seems clear that they're chasing a flickering projection, which disappears before they can come close, and it also seems clear that the music is meant to invigorate them, make them persist, rather than illustrate the mood. There is not a tremendous deal of conviction in the way they hit the wall, again and again. What makes it more poignant, however, is the shift that happens as they start leaving things. They walk into the wall with flowers, and leave the crushed flowers by the wall. Chair, leave. Water bottle, leave. Like the road shrines to the victims of car accidents, like the flowers left for victims of suicide bombers, so are these little souvenirs to violence, martyrdom, scattered by the wall.

I will not disclose the ending, strangely funny and unexpectedly beautiful, although I could keep rambling on each long scene in this magnificent performance. There is a lot in a show like Nomads, and any attempt to analyse, I feel, kills the magnificent, slow and mature vagueness with which it paints images on those enormous, concrete walls. It is very airy theatre, of the kind that can really disorientate, confuse and frustrate the audience member that wants to be touched or entertained. It is not immersive, with the music video logic, like much of the home-grown non-narrative theatre. It is quietly visual, slow and uneventful, and pleases mainly to the extent to which one can fill the evening with thought. There is an echo of Brecht here: a thinking and smoking spectator, where smoking was precisely the a sign of dispassionate contemplation. But it is also Wilsonian, perhaps: intermissions at your discretion without the signposting. It is worth suspending your expectations, and allowing yourself the discursive and observational freedom normally reserved for classical music or a modernist novel, and just let the images, concepts and stories wash over you, before deciding what it means.

Nomads. Directed by Hans Van den Broeck. Performers/collaborators: Kathy Cogill, Nikki Heywood, Rowan Marchingo, Tony Osborne, Lizzie Thomson, Vicki van Hout, Nalina Wait, Anuschka van Oppen, Joe Jurd. Video design Sam James. Sound design James Brown. Lighting design Sydney Bouhaniche. Project convenors Nikki Heywood and Rowan Marchingo. Production manager Jenn Blake. Residency showing at Performance Space, Sydney, 27 – 29 November 2008.

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