Tag Archives: formal inquiry

Triptych

The beautiful, enormous space of Carriageworks – probably at least half the size of the Venice Arsenale – is a good place to think about the relationship between body and space. It is a semi-reconstructed, semi-abandoned train shed, a glass and iron enclosure of large volumes of air, with narrow but tall corridors, with sprinkles of soft benches, chairs, on the concrete floor, a space as impressive, in its effect on the mind, as any intentionally good architecture – as pleasant to wander around as that opera house. Sivan Gabrielovich mentioned being in the outback, experiencing for the first time the enormity of Australia, and feeling bare, lost, foreign, and unable to hide to herself. Nothing casting a shadow. I have often, returning to the Kvarner Bay after long periods overseas, felt the immediate realignment between my physical existence and the dynamics of the relief: the regular rhythm of the hills, the safe mutability of the sea, the enclosure of the islands all around.

The philosophical background to Bodyweather likewise – the acceptance of being a part of the world, and not a constant confrontation with it, is what has driven Far-Eastern thought strongly towards understanding applied arts and everyday practices as spiritual pursuits, perfecting the tea ceremony and work ethics just like the Western thought has engaged in still life painting, biochemistry and walking on the moon. As Okakura says, in The Book of Tea, “The art of life is in constant and repeated adapatation to our surroundings.”

Bodyweather is a comprehensive training and performance practice, developed by Min Tanaka, a butoh dancer and choreographer, and his Mai-Juku Performance Company, exploring the intersection of body and environment. Body is conceived not as a fixed, separate entity, but as a constantly changing, permeable element in the order of things, responding to the processes inside and outside the body. Like the weather. Strength is drawn from the acceptance of its fragile finiteness. As a former member of Mai-Juku, from 1985 to 1991, Tess De Quincey introduced Bodyweather to Australia in 1988, before establishing De Quincey Co. in 2000. She has since engendered a strong teaching and performance practice, and developed different projects, the most fascinating of which must be the Triple Alice Laboratories, which explored the landscape of the Central Desert of Australia, bringing together an interdisciplinary group of artists and scientists, indigenous and non-indigenous, in situ.

This is another dance tribe, and one that, I am told, has historically focused around Performance Space, which is one institution Melbourne could really envy Sydney for. A very precious, very valuable organisation, presenting a curated program of contemporary hybrid performance, linking theatre with dance, film, visual arts and new media, and creating a profile for the new, it is the kind of kick that Australian performance needs badly, and doesn't get with any sustained effort.

Triptych is a performance that moves its audience around, arranges our limbs, with the patience of water. It opens up and closes like an accordion book. It lets us find our space along a long wall with no seating provided, and then, changing the configuration of space with moving screens, gently forces us to disperse, assemble, locate a bench or lie on the ground. It's a slow, deep experience, demanding patience and engagement. It affects internally, through the stomach.

It opens with Peter Fraser, later joined by Lizzie Thomson, their movement slowly overloading with the stimulus of three enormous screens projecting cherry branches quivering in the wind. The performance slowly builds up the initial pink prettiness of cherry blossom into a paralyzing experience of over-abundant stimulation, as Fraser tries to fly and collapses. Using the incessant repetitive accumulation of sound and image as soft as a murmur, it becomes the overwhelming nothingness of a full, dense void. The excess of colour, of movement, of the three screens build up into abstract buzz – and this dissolution of cherry blossom into pure stimulation is the last instance of figuration we will see tonight.

The next configuration of screens, Fraser and Thomson now accompanied by Victoria Hunt and Linda Luke, shows the body responding to the electric buzz: information, digital impulses, electricity, with the body near-paralyzed, unable to create coherent movement with beginning and end. The only way for this fine-grained stimulation of noise to resolve is to turn into organic white noise of the sea. As it does, the body slowly frees itself from the block and, finally, Victoria Hunt manages a smooth, non-discontinued, round arm movement. And collapses.

Triptych composes media with more intelligence than just about any performance I've seen: no element is dispensable. The moving screens constantly change the dynamics of space, with view lines intersecting, with movement lines interrupting and changing; performers can be out of the view of most, or even everyone, in the audience, and yet they are strong points in the overall composition of bodies, image, and empty space. There appear to be serial images built in linear configurations: in one moment, Thomson spasming in front of a screen, in unison with the sound/image projected, is mirrored by a smaller, less undisciplined tremor of Hunt's body, while Luke, on the far right, is helplessly lying on the ground. In the third scene, the sea wave on each side of the space draws an invisible line of horizon with the two central screens, and the perceived darkening of the digital screen when viewed at an angle creates an illusion of depth. Gorgeous projections by Sam James and Robin Fox and De Quincey's dance are closely, closely aligned with the Chris Abrahams's noisescape, to the point where no element could exist without the other (and how often do you see dance where the back wall is a brainstorm of unrelated imagery?).

However, for someone as unfamiliar with Bodyweather, or De Quincey, as I am, it was the quality of the body that was the biggest revelation, and the strongest point of interest. All four are astonishing performers (particularly Hunt and Fraser), their bodies like clay, drying into brittle dissipation with air, pulsating with electricity, or absorbing the heaviness of water. This is more an exploration of pure movement, of body reacting to stimuli, than choreography as such, and whoever expects dancers to stretch limbs and mimic being pulled and pushed may find little visual interest in Triptych. These are weighty bodies, grounded, most of the movement being an accumulation of blocked responses accumulating inside the body, trying to find release. It has no interest in recitative, demonstrative movement, but works from the inside. It is often inscrutable, emitting no signals and sending no messages; it can be merely felt. These are real bodies, bodies being, rather than ever copying another reality.

Triptych – Robin Fox sample from Samuel James on Vimeo.

Triptych. By De Quincey Co. presented by Performance Space. Choreographer/Director Tess de Quincey. Performers Peter Fraser, Victoria Hunt, Linda Luke, Lizzie Thomson. Sound composition Chris Abrahams. Audio-visual production Sam James. Video footage Tess de Quincey. Oscilloscopes Robin Fox. Performance Space @ Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh, Sydney. 6–15 November.

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Some useful ideas.

Dated in the future, but a little bit older than that, Zadie Smith's exquisite article, Two Paths for a Novel, from the New York Review of Books, could be a very fine read for your week. It is a comparative review of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainer, and a long essay on the reign, on the best-selling lists and popular taste, of what Smith terms 'lyrical realism', and criticises with merciless, but faultless, precision.

Since most, if not all, of what stands on the bookstore shelves under Australian Fiction falls into that category, and there is little difference between contemporary Australian literary and dramatic writing, there can be no harm in quoting with some breadth:

In Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence, this “translation into another world.” Which is why personal things are so relentlessly aestheticized: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language. Lip service is paid to the sanctity of mystery…, but, in practice Netherland colonizes all space by way of voracious image. This results in many beauties (“a static turnstile like a monster's unearthed skeleton”) and some oddities (a cricket ball arrives “like a gigantic meteoritic cranberry”), though in both cases, there is an anxiety of excess. Everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes. On TV “dark Baghdad glitter[s] with American bombs.” Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first-century bourgeois existence. The surprise discovery of his wife's lactose intolerance becomes “an unknown hinterland to our marriage”; a slightly unpleasant experience of American bureaucracy at the DMV brings Hans (metaphorically) close to the war on terror.

Bear with Zadie a little longer:

Netherland recognizes the tenuous nature of a self, that “fine white thread running, through years and years,” and Hans flirts with the possibility that language may not precisely describe the world (“I was assaulted by the notion, arriving in the form of a terrifying stroke of consciousness, that substance—everything of so called concreteness—was indistinct from its unnameable opposite”), but in the end Netherland wants always to comfort us, to assure us of our beautiful plenitude. At a certain point in his Pervert's Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss. Netherland flirts with that idea, too. Not knowing what to do with photographs of his young son, Hans gives them to Chuck's girlfriend, Eliza, who organizes photo albums for a living:

I was thinking of the miserable apprehension we have of even those existences that matter most to us. To witness a life, even in love—even with a camera—was to witness a monstrous crime without noticing the particulars required for justice.

An interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing. Netherland doesn't really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

Sorry/thank you, dear reader. Having read three quarters of Smith's article, and taken it around with me for my whirlwind week, brought it up in countless conversations (because Australian literature, and Australian dramatic writing, have featured in many conversations lately), it was good to return and find that Smith's article has started a fruitful and articulated discussion on the literary blogs. Proving once again, as a side note, that literary criticism grew up much before all others.

On the one hand, there is the usual conglomerate of the artfully- and/or socially-minded, who uphold the values of a fine turn of phrase and story-telling, and dismiss formal inquiry as esoteric and elitist in ways similar to Anglophone theatre criticism. Dismissing Smith's problematization of a perfect specimen of a genre, (“People are not typically dispirited by dances, cars, movies, or novels because they are “perfect” – if they ever could be.”), Tony Christini on A Pragmatic Policy argues, from a sociological-humanist angle:

It’s so easy, so safe to talk about technique, to hopelessly bemoan or tinker with change in technique to little crucial effect. It’s almost a way of removing art from the humanities, the human realm, and inserting it into severely blinkered conceptual netherworlds.

Christini's critique, however, has depth and complexity, unlike the open traditionalist Nigel Beale's:

If Smith condemns O’Neill’s ‘realism’ as the bedside story that comforts us the most, and if she eschews the importance of form, the truth of language and the continuity of self, what on earth is she suggesting gets us closer to our condition? That everyone write like Beckett? And how, if she has an idea, does she plan to hold reader interest without use of plot, metaphor and style?

And yet, both seem to conceptualise form as frill on the meaningful content, quite blind to the ideology behind the well-turned phrase. Mark Thwaite, on the other hand, recognises in Smith's lyrical realism his own Establishment Literary Fiction, which parallels rather strongly what we, in theatre, call in turns dramatic, naturalistic or, with a wrinkled nose, 'straight theatre'. ELF is

the very antithesis of literature: it is hubristic, formulaic and trite; it is non- essential. If Literary Fiction is defined by its proud masterpieces, its smug perfections, literature should be known as a failed art that in its failing helps us to understand our own feeble inadequacies and helps us to fail better.

If most Australian writing fails, it's primarily because, to echo Thwaite on McEwan, it isn't an investigation into anything. What's commonly perceived as failure is that it isn't even, to echo Thwaite on McEwan again, the laying bare of a meticulous plan. In this sense, it fails both on its own terms and if read subversively. What often gets lost in this search for craft, for stories and characters and phrases turning, to reward and promote and rescue and hold up and praise and wave like the national flag, is everything else. The groundwork overshadows what should be up in the sky. Because certainly it's not inappropriate to view art as a Tower of Babel, and the experience of art as a stretching of the self, an act of violence over our self-validated comfort, in order to bring us closer to the world, to others, to ourselves. At the bottom of it, a pursuit of an answer to a question we may not always know. And, as a result of the strain, strange shapes and colours. Unfamiliar things. As Hemingway said, almost no new classics resemble other previous classics.

Finally, Richard Crary, remembering that we often say Modernism when we mean formal experiment, writes:

For it seems to me that the forgotten, ignored (or possibly just not understood?) meaning of Modernism is writing as an event, art as an event, where writing in the old, accepted, “conventional” ways are simply not suitable, not justified.

This brings it back, very closely, to performance, theatre as an event in time and space and not a timeless/placeless/dis-event, a simulacrum of the perfect unrealisable play. The threads connecting the discussion are too many and too colourful to even start systematising on a sunny spring day full of work and hunger. But shouldn't we keep thinking? If we could write on theatre, particularly in this country, with the articulation, intelligence and passion of literary criticism, it wouldn't hurt us, would it?

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Sunstruck

Breaking all rules of good composition, I would like to start on an unrelated note. It leaves me wondering whether the atmospheric density, the sensual coherence, so common in Australian theatre (Liminal Theatre, cabaret, quaint circus, The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, and many many more), even art in general, from film (The Proposition) to visual arts (Fred Williams, John Olsen, Russell Drysdale, and the plethora of landscape painters) is somehow related to the lacking grand narrative of this culture. The basic reduction of colours, shapes and motifs, the bedrock of all aesthetic coherence, is also the bedrock of the narrative coherence of cultural identity. To describe a place ex novo is nothing less than to bring it into existence or, as Lepecki would smugly put it, we need to consider representation as an ontological force. And the complicity between landscape painting and nationalism has long been identified. Sunstruck looks very much like

Russell Drysdale: The Cricketers, 1948.

this. More importantly, though, it also looks like

Raymond Depardon: Désert du Téneré (detail), 1989.

this which, no less importantly, was used as a cover image for L'Estranger [The Outsider].

The sun was shining almost vertically onto the sand and the glare from the sea was unbearable. There was no one left on the beach. It was hard to breathe in the dry heat rising from the ground. I wasn't thinking about anything because the sun beating down on my bare head was making me feel sleepy. (…) For two hours now the day had stood still, for two hours it had been anchored in an ocean of molten metal. – Albert Camus, L'Estranger

The sun is one of the most frequent motifs in the first part of the book: the grinding sun that reduces existence to two-dimensionality. There are no fine shades, no minute complexity of detail, in front of the blinding sun. Everything is reduced to the elementary. Flat black and white – like graphic novels, a medium extremely apt to deal with basic existential questions (and interested in them). Sunstruck also looks like

Danijel Zezelj: from Stray Dogs (detail), 2004.

this, and like

Hugo Pratt: from La ballata del mare salato (detail), 1967.

this. Both of these graphic novelists, interestingly enough, are chiefly concerned with monochrome explorations of the most fundamental mechanisms of life. While in Zezelj's work the fine lace of detail dissolves into spare lush strokes of black on white whenever a larger theme is brought up, so do Pratt's characters regularly meander out of world wars and treasure hunts to walk empty beaches and have existentialist dialogues.

According to Sagi and Stein, Camus is concerned with concrete existence, which he thinks of in terms of the basic encounter with immediate experiences, exemplified by the sea and the sun – what they term 'his Mediterranean thinking'. In this sense, he continues the existentialist-phenomenological tradition of the Husserl/Kierkegaard/Hiedegger variety. Aesthetically, his writing contrasts the experience of the sea as immersion into absolute immanence to the existential alienation of the sun. In front of the blinding sun, we are reduced to our barest humanity.

Who doesn't know that heavy feeling of heat, turning life into abstract, thoughtless being?

The idea of 'Mediterranean thinking' is something that appeals to me, although I would stretch it to include hot and dry climate more broadly.In hot climate, all the questions appear more basic: all major religions have sprung up, fundamentally, in the desert, and so have philosophy and mathematics and tragedy. Pursuit of principles, so to speak. Standing in the front of the sun, one is never much more than simple geometry.

George Hoyningen-Huene: Untitled (Bathing Suits by Izod) (detail), from Vogue, July 5 1930.

A bit like the unavoidable abstraction of the beach body.

But this all came much, much later. Sunstruck was a piece of performance that blinded, cleansed; it left one feeling sated on pure ether, heart full of empty space. Discursive response was impossible for days after, the pure and amimetic unsuggestiveness of Sunstruck slowly letting the contradictory, overwhelming wealth of emotional response build into something more than speechless awe.

With nothing more than two men, dressed in black, one circle of chairs, one rotating sun, a fantastically fluid incorporation of the enormous shedspace into the relatively unspatious performance. Livia Ruzic's soundscape alone makes fifty percent of the experience. The choreography is never more than a rich hint of human existence itself, two men moving like blinded by great headlights, like on that Algiers beach, and it is no wonder they are men, and not women. Something about the lines being cleaner. The sea, I hear you smart kids wondering, is also present, if nothing in the seagull cries right before the end, the seagulls flying over the construction landscape outside our enormous shed. If we believe in Camus, and there is no reason not to, it is at this point that the absurd finality, limitedness, of bare existence makes peace with the immanent, and the two two-dimensional men merge with the world. There is, really, nothing more. Like that Japanese cottage in spring, like utsubo, a quality, greatly appreciated in buddhism, of being empty in order to contain the immense, hollow as an ability to become full. A bit like the capacity for pregnancy.

Martin probably summed it up best, saying:

It just seemed to encompass everything about men and joy and inexorable tragedy and struggle and continuation and children and inevitable loss and sadness and wisdom and compassion. It was one of the most empathetic pieces I have ever seen.

In this year's Arts Festival, with such aggressive preponderance of explanation, of persuasion, of unfulfilled promises, Sunstruck shines like a supernova, all understatement, undermovement, all viscous substance. By plunging as deep as possible into an atmosphere, a sensation, unexplained, unjustified, unconceptualised, it encompasses everything and more.

MIAF. Sunstruck: a premonition of events from memory, fantasy and the imagination. Concept collaboration: Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham. Directed by Helen Herbertson. Design and lighting by Bluebottle/Ben. Physical realisation by Helen Herbertson, Trevor Patrick and Nick Sommerville. Set realised by Alan Robertson. Soundscape by Livia Ruzic. Music by Tamil Rogeon (violin) and Tim Blake (cello). Production by Bluebottle/Frog. Shed 4, North Wharf Road, Docklands. Season ended.

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Review: The Zombie State

This review has been published in Laneway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

The stage is theological for as long as its structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the following elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulated the time or the meaning of representation, letting this latter represent him as concerns what is called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas. He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors, enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the “creator”. Interpretive slaves who faithfully execute the providential designs of the “master”. -Derrida

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on form and theatre; vignette

My most cherished discovery has been a generation of very young Croatian theatre-makers, absolutely fearless. This year, Gordana Vnuk, the iron lady of Eurokaz and an uncompromising believer in new forms of expression, pulled out these kids that haven't even graduated yet, and what beautiful things they have shown. I have seen so much brave, crushing, beautiful form on Eurokaz 2008, so much of it absolutely riveting.

Point one. Marina Petkovic.

Black box. Four actors wearing black. They describe exactly who they are, what they do. I am Gertrude. From here to here is my bed. It has four pillows on it. I sleep here alone, when I'm not performing my marital duties, in which case my husband, the king, sleeps here too. There is a double door here, a window over here, and a long red curtain covering it. I am wearing a white nightgown. I am Hamlet. I am wearing black, with a dagger hanging here. I am Polonius. I am hiding behind this curtain.

Gertrude and Hamlet sit down, chair to chair, holding pages of Shakespeare's text, reading as neutrally as they described the setting, the costumes. Hamlet gets up, stabs Polonius, and comes back. Gertrude, still neutrally: Oh what you have done? Argument; neutrally. Meanwhile, Polonius is dying in a most naturalistic way, shaking and curling on the floor. About five minutes. Hamlet is getting upset: he stammers, misreads his lines, sweats, has to repeat the words multiple times. Slowly, minutes passing, Polonius drags himself to the two chairs, grips Hamlet's leg. Hamlet chokes, tries to shake him off, still reading from the pages, very upset. Gertrude gets up, pulls, sits on Polonius, keeps reading. Both very upset now: words are mangled, phrases interrupted, repeated. Sweat. Polonius dies. It takes them time, cooperation and physical combinatorics to carry him out, through the double door. End.

Point two. Same performance.

Claudius, Gertrude and Horatio describe the setting of a ceremonial hall in great detail, each focusing on the parts that matter the most. This is my throne, because I am the king. Here hangs my portrait, 7×7m… No, 9×9. My throne is made out of gold, with a big sphere here, all covered in gems. My throne is a bit smaller. It's made out of wood. It has a golden sphere here. My portrait hangs with the king's. 6×6m. The hall is really big and spherical. If I stood here , and the actor leaves the performance space through the side door, walks out in the middle of the courtyard, I would be in the centre of the room. It feels good and comfy, like a church. Here is where Hamlet and I used to play when we were little. Now we're not allowed anymore. Then Ophelia. There is a river flowing through here. Break. She creates, with words, a natural landscape on top of the ceremonial hall. She describes her daydreaming in the forest. End.

This is all fantastic to watch. The rise or fall of this kind of theatre – of any kind of theatre, I believe – is in the extent to which they can engage their audience. Not merely for entertainment value: engagement improves attention, concentration, focus. Yet to qualify why something is engaging theatre, and something else fails to engage, is near-impossible. Finally, Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it was a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secret of the universe.

I am sure that these two essays did not attempt to give the answers I found. They were results of a workshop around Gavella, a Croatian theatre theorist and maker, whose writings I have never read. The first was almost certainly not a critique of text-based performance as promulgated in Anglophone countries, although it was the single most powerful critique I have ever seen. The second could not have been a reply to the West End Whingers, regarding the absolute mimicry of life in the direction of the ugly one by Ramin Gray, performed at the Royal Court in London. It may have been a demonstration of how little theatre needs to create setting, a mise-en-scéne, and how easily the audience can juggle in mind multiple, contradictory sets of signs, but it probably responded to Gavella instead. And yet, I cannot forget these two scenes. They were simple, minimalist, and unforgettable.

My sister, a 14-year-old with no experience of experimental theatre, not only sat through the 120 minutes of this black narrativeless experiment, but excitedly quoted moments from the performance days later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Attempts on Her Life; or the anatomy of a decade.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre: Attempts on Her Life. Written by Martin Crimp. Directed by Susie Dee. Sound Design and Composition by Kelly Ryall. Set and Costume Design by Jeminah Reidy. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Audio-Visual Design by Nicholas Verso. Cast: Rhys Aconley-Jones, Chloe Boreham, Ananth Gopal, Kali Hulme, Joshua Lynzaat, Jen Mackie, Laura Maitland, Jan Mihal, Ella Roberts, Anna Teresa Scheer, Sophie Testart and Megan Twycross. Guild Theatre, University of Melbourne, 16 – 24 May 2008. Bookings on 03) 8344 7447 or www.union.unimelb.edu.au/tickets.

A virtually identical version of this article can be found online on vibewire.net.

There is something about the theatre of blood and sperm (in the sense of a distinct spatio-temporal artistic trend, centred on the UK, but also a bit of Germany, Austria and the ex-Balkans) that seems to me to speak most clearly and precisely of what 1990s were. Watching Attempts on Her Life, a Melbourne University Student Union Theatre production of a 1997 text by Martin Crimp, for the first time I came to realise how our entire worldview changed with the war in Bosnia. It is a view from the distance, and yet to me (who has spent the 1990s somewhat closer to the epicentre) this enormous, eye-opening change of perspective was never reported as accurately as it is in these wounded, screaming plays. Not even by, say, Kusturica. I had a vague idea, previously, that Bosnia became Western Europe's big trauma, a failure of optimism, but never took it seriously ('our suffering is so much bigger'). In retrospect, the crash of hopes within Bosnia was probably complementary, rather than contrasting, to the larger disillusion.

So what really happened in the 1990s? There was our war, a brutal, senseless and incredibly immediate war. In Britain, there was the introduction of CCTV and the rise of surveillance society. There were the first doubts on consumerism, channelled through the early slacker fiction. After the ambitious 1980s, it started becoming apparent that our enormous appetite was not just a consequence of our fulfilling ambitions, that it was not a constructive consumption, a transformation of elements. It had turned into consumption for consumption's sake, blind and insatiable, until, to paraphrase both Slavoj Žižek and Viktor Pelevin (1999), it became a monotonous murmur of absorbing and disgorging, joyless but for the punctuating, ever briefer wow!-moments. There was the first mention of eating disorders. Yet the formal rhetoric of the mass (and not so mass) media, inherited from the 1980s, was that of the end of history, the best of all possible worlds, endless joy, how lucky are we?!

Today, the lag between what we feel and what we are told to feel is slightly different – post-9/11 world is a sombre world – and the dissident behaviour nowadays is, perhaps, to trust thy neighbour and not feel afraid (see American indie). Then, however, the arts reacted with an explosion of violent nihilism, as if subconsciously we were trying to heal the gap between what we heard and what we felt. It was the decade of Trainspotting (1996), Nirvana (1991-1994), Tracy Emin, The Prodigy (early 1990s), Fight Club (1999). Even reading early Bridget Jones (1995) leaves an aftertaste, for all the shopping and gossiping is framed by dysfunctional eating and persistent binge drinking. When the towers collapsed, Baudrillard said they had to; we had been making them collapse in films so persistently we brought it on ourselves. Our return of the repressed. But perhaps it was simply the external reality bursting the same feel-good bubble that we were trying to burst from the inside, through our art, all along.

It was all slightly different elsewhere. While Europe had a real war on its doorstep, the US had a televised one that – again quoth Baudrillard – never happened. I would be curious to know what an Australian subject in 2008 may find in Attempts on Her Life, what sort of reading they would have. Perhaps the war on terror has created the same de-localised anxiety here. But my entire life flashed before my eyes. In-yer-face was so good, so accurate at nailing the threads that connected our fears. Perhaps it is the theatrical medium that allowed these plays to circumvent plot, cause and effect, setting or rounded characters, and keep alive the tenuous threads between acts and emotions, that now makes them such a mirror of a decade. In Blasted (1995), the violence Out There and its impact on our ability to love. In Family Stories (1998), the guilt for our children's future. In Woman-Bomb (2003, but it counts), the raging impotence in the face of coerced serenity, governmental soothing.

In Attempts, the inability to quite pinpoint what it is that worries us, between the everyday hedonism here and immense suffering elsewhere, results in a disconnected series of semi-portraits, of semi-stories, of variations on a feeling. The text is subtitled 17 Scenarios for theatre: the death of Anna, Anny, Anja, Anushka, figurative, artistic or medically sound, is narrated in fragments, dialogues, commentary, songs, video, arguments, answering machine messages. Recurring motifs are war, femininity, surveillance, despair. Not innocently, the empty vessel on whose person the scenarios are played out is a woman.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre's production, in the skillful hands of Susie Dee, plays with the possibilities of theatre. As much as the context of certain dialogues is transparent, they are never staged literally, but hover in a dreamspace, a not-quite-space. As a result, the production refrains from situating the meaning in any one place (imagine the boredom of 17 times same), leaving it both associative and open-ended.

Photo credits: Vicki Jones

Jeminah Reidy's set puts the audience in the centre, in a swarm of swivel chairs, while the stage hugs the sides of the theatre, as a long, white, tiled underground station. The actors (for there are no characters) talk to each other, argue, across the auditorium, which results in some beautiful mass movement, as audience members swivel left to right, following the action. From one fragment of a story to another, the focus shifts from left to right, backstage to front, until, all possibilities exhausted, it ends exactly where it started. Cyclic nature of life or exhaustion, it nonetheless feels complete, concluded.

Some of the attempts on her life are simply exquisite: a battle of art criticism over her posthumous exhibition of suicide notes, despite all its mime of realism staged as a dream, a nightmare, of a gallery opening. Autobiography of a sex worker (replete with vivre-sa-vie-claims), confessed in third-person (restrained and fragile Megan Twycross), behind a screen, with a mass dance, interrupted half-way and from then on dictated by the translator (militantly French Chloe Boreham). An unexpected song (excellent Kali Hulme). The central point of the performance to me seemed to be a faux-advertisement for pink caddillac Anny, presented in Bosnian Croatian (I may have misheard here, and if so I apologise for any offense) with a sexy MC (rather good-looking Jan Mihal), turbo-folk music and three dancers in fluorescent pink parkas (overflowing with references to nouveau riche, war profiteers, the new bad taste). As the advertisement progressively degenerated, turning from the sum of our desires („always a beautiful blonde inside“) into the sum of our repressed anxieties (with „no room for Gypsies, Arabs, Kurds, blacks“), I was reminded not only of the vast semantic cathedral attached to the possession of a good car in a place like Bosnia, but also of those sarcastic news programs Danijel Žeželj created in Sun City (1993), in which genocide, wars, and new ozone holes were interspersed with hardcore porn and an order: smile wider!, wider!

Is Melbourne University Student Union Theatre always this good? Was I meant to be aware? Only the occasional acting glitch points to this being a non-professional production, rather than something that Malthouse could be staging. Right. Now. It did help that Crimp’s play may be the most brutally, icily poetic text I have encountered in a Melbourne theatre in a while. Whichever way, this outstandingly creative and courageous production may be the best thing currently playing.

See also: On Stage (and walls)

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Jerome Bel: The Show Must Go On

the water does not intend to reflect the moon
nor does the moon intend to be reflected in the water:
how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters!

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18.x.2007. The Show Must Go On
Concept and direction: Jérôme Bel. DJ and Technical director: Gilles Gentner. MIAF. Playhouse at the Arts Centre. 16-18 October. Co-produced by Théâtre de la Ville, Paris; Gasthuis, Amsterdam; Centre choréographique national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon; Arteleku Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia, Donostia, San Sebastián; and R.B., Paris.

In 2006, my Croatian friend Petar insisted that I be his delegate at MIAF '06 and witness Jérôme Bel. He was adamant. I had to see him. Unqualified, unmodified by adjectives, this Jérôme Bel. Except, of course, that he was crazy, but madness is a constant in art. So I went. And to this day I cannot define what it was that I saw. I walked out with a strong feeling that everything was beautiful and life worth living. But why?

Recently, I saw Thom Pain, a play meant to break conventions, tear through the form, show us raw feeling, but also a play endlessly plagued by acting. I witnessed it as spontaneity enacted, performed, and unconvincing, a quirky but superficial recombination of formal clichés; the paradox exploded in full force when the actor interrupted the final applause to ask for donations, explained the history, operation and purpose of the fund in question, and gave an example of an acting colleague struggling through illness. This sudden moment of real life on stage had me in tears before I realised what was happening. It was as if the emotions of the play, behind the play, finally found a suitable release point.

May I compare it to Kim Ki-duk and his elaborate constructions of situations, situations improbable, unrealistic? In Kim Ki-duk's world, grandiose combinations of people, places, events, emotions, serve to illustrate comparatively small intellectual points (intellect being but a fragment of human reality). The problem is that so much of life, of humanity, of existence, is fundamentally indescribable, unshowable, unrepresentable, comes out spontaneously when nobody is looking, nobody is acting, nobody is writing or directing. The truth of art – for myself, of course – is born in the moment the artist forgets the artist, the work and the purpose, and expresses some of that light of life. I'm sure there is more than an element of fairly simple Euro aesthetics in this, but think Zen: He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing. In possession of an infallible technique, the individual places himself at the mercy of inspiration.

In The Diary Project, Renata Cuocolo pointed out: What has always fascinated me is the way in which people can stay at the window or on the veranda all day long, looking outside not getting bored, but if they go to the movies or to the theatre they immediately complain about feeling bored. Renata Cuocolo, herself an artist.

The Show Must Go On, this year's gift to us (and might there be more?), explores this front line between the real and the artificial image, and real and artificial experience, and creates something very special in the process. Most of the art, contemporary art, that does work on this distinction, I find displeasing, self-conscious, banal, and not bringing anything new into the picture, just the insistent, insecure clamor of why do you look at me? am i special? am i that special? just how much? i'm not! or am i?. Like the reaction of one confronted with someone else's love. Not Bel, though. For whatever reason, he succeeds. I find it hard to paint a picture of why?, therefore!, by these means!, this is his secret! But it works for me, for the person sitting next to me, for that guy behind me giving the standing ovation at the end, for the excited 12-year-old. Perhaps it's the sweetness. I myself am not a fan of brutalism in arts, of that in-your-face violence towards the spectator. Why not try to reach the television-viewer instead, the computer-game player, the sports audience, or at least those who go to musicals? Theatre bunch, themselves attending theatre very rarely for pure spectacle, are already likely to be engaged in arts production, asking themselves the same question. And that is, after all, why a theatre performance would have any more significance than watching the street.

So in a sense, The Show Must Go On makes us watch like we would watch the street. He pokes the theatre form just enough to get us there, and yet not forget to be engaged emotionally and intellectually, to give it the importance we rarely give to street-watching. He does that by doing all kinds of unexpected, un-theatrical things to the stage, performers and the audience, but there is never brutality to it. He plays pop songs. Performers assemble on the stage only to put their hands in their pockets and look at us, the audience. They lights go off. The performers will leave the stage, then come back. Dancers without ballet training will perform ballet clichés. Performers without singing talent sing. People will hug, and dance a sentiš under muted red lights. At one point, even the audience is given a chance to perform, with the lights on us, and the entire performing ensemble looking attentively. (To Matt's dismay, only some use the opportunity to dance a dance back. He has since suggested attending another performance only to right this wrong.) It's all unexpected, it's all vaguely puzzling, but there is the same sense of purpose that exists on the street at any given hour (even 5am). It's some sort of life on stage, but not as a representation of some off-stage life, it's performers living on stage, being what they are and doing what they do in the most honest way. The sound technician comes on stage to dance alone on Only You, and after a minute, having had an idea, he jumps off the stage to his technician desk, turns the volume up and the lights down, and returns. After an entire songful of random actions, jumps, clenches, bangs, finishes, the dancers not only stop performing, they take a minute to be tired. They take their jumpers off. Go off-stage and come back with bottles of water. They breathe heavily. They wait for the next number. There is no affectation to it, but no purposeless banality either. It's Bel saying, these are performers, you are audience, i direct: let's see the possibilities of the situation.

In fact, what's most compelling about the performance is its ability to glean most spontaneous audience reactions. In a less benevolent world, this would include a great number of patrons leaving, but this night, instead, there are people rocking on their chairs in beat with the pop songs; patchy singing along; laughter on all sides, and it's the most beautiful thing, bursts of laughter from a person or two, contagiously spreading over the auditorium and dying quickly, then again; there is a final applause that in itself could be a staged scene, with standing ovations on one side, people leaving on the other, and groups of happy patrons simply sitting in their seats, enjoying what's certainly not the end of the show. Until everyone has left, it's not over.

There is no incitement to grand collective audience participation, and none is likely to happen in a city like this. It's not a show of universal love&collective harmony. There are witty moments, and happy moments, and moments of individual responsibility. But there is never despair, never any suggestion we might be better off observing the street outside. Afterwards, there is palpable joy in the air. Joy. There doesn't seem to be in Bel's work any intention to teach us, and nor does the audience seem to intend to learn secrets about life. But in the end, how calm and serene rest Hirosawa's waters.

by Jana Perkovic

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How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Passmore probably gives the most consistent performance, both in mood and accent, holding the play together with his omnipresence on stage. Michael F Cahill’s performance is of equally high standard, but the remaining three actors struggle to represent an entire world of strange, half-hallucinatory yet unmistakably British people. And who can blame them?
HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY AND NEVER BE FOUND
Venue: Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Corner of Sydney & Glenlyon Roads, Brunswick
Dates: 23 May – 7 June 2008
Times: Tues-Sat 8:15pm, Sun 5:00pm
Tickets: $30 / $20 Conc / $18 Tuesdays
Bookings: (03) 9016 3873 or hoypolloy@bigpond.com

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