Tag Archives: naturalism

Changing the Face of Australian Theatre

Changing The Face Of Australian Theatre

By Jana Perkovic

Mainstream theatre companies aren’t working hard enough to engage with the diversity of contemporary Australia, writes Jana Perkovic

If any one issue has troubled Australian theatre of late, it has been that of diversity.

In a country that prides itself on egalitarian inclusivity, why do we see so few non-white faces on stage and behind the scenes? Why are there so few women directors? Why is our theatre by and about white, Anglo-Celtic men?

These questions routinely meet a series of standard answers. Indigenous theatre is thriving. Our arts centres bring in the Chinese Ballet and Greek rebetika. There are women aplenty in community theatre.

But by and large, these are exceptions to the rule.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s 2010 program promises to bring over entire productions from the US and the UK — but does not stage a single contemporary text of non-English origin. What does this imply about the state of our cultural diversity? A self-proclaimed “Australian Shakespeare” company, Bell Shakespeare, casts almost exclusively white actors. What does this say about what Australians should look like? To be fair, Bell Shakespeare’s 2010 season will feature Leah Purcell in King Lear — but here again is the danger of accepting the exception to the rule as a proof of revolution.

Mainstream theatre is nation-defining territory, and Australia’s mainstream theatres have been very good at excluding — together with any home-grown, “experimental” performance — any face, voice or attitude that strays from a very narrow understanding of what Australia is. If art provides a way to collectively imagine our world by telling stories about who we are, how we came to be this way and where we are heading, then onstage, “our” stories are still stories of mateship in the bush and middle-class white suburbia, the range of “our” characters reduced to the semi-articulate Aussie bloke (with the occasional girlfriend or wog neighbour thrown in). Think of the sugarcane cutters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Don in Don’s Party and the Removalists, and the emotionally constipated Anglo families of Tom Holloway.

This tendency leaves a lot of people out of work. The scandal of the year arose over the lack of women directing main stage theatre and culminated with Melbourne University demanding that the Melbourne Theatre Company employ an equal opportunity officer.

Yet theatres aren’t your average workplaces and equal opportunity in art can be difficult to defend. Neil Armfield’s defence of the all-male directing season at Belvoir St Theatre? Predictable: they were chosen on merit only. Few self-respecting artists would attempt to argue that the arts ought not be a meritocracy, and talent, alas, has always been very unfairly distributed. What if our best directors really are all men?

The problem is more complex, aesthetically and historically. The worst thing we have inherited from British theatre is an extremely narrow view of what theatre should be — amplified, without a doubt, by a colonial fear of not getting it right. British and American theatre traditions, visually fairly dumb, have been clinging to naturalism — a 19th century style characterised by literal representation of realistic events on stage — and for many critics this remains the only right way to “do” theatre, even though the best contemporary Australian performance has outgrown this aesthetic.

In 2007, Lee Lewis opened the can of worms that is the lack of racial diversity in Australian theatre, advocating cross-racial casting of classics. If we assume that the actor transforms on stage, she asked, why do we only allow this power to the white actor? If blackface is a theatrical cliché, why should there be a problem with a black actor playing Hamlet?

In the uproar that followed, many missed the subtler side of her argument: diverse casting has fared much better in those forms of theatre that embrace metaphor more openly. In this she counted opera and ballet but also contemporary non-Anglo theatre. The directors who have most consistently challenged whiteness on Australian main stages have been Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky (who cast Deborah Mailman as Cordelia in his King Lear for Bell Shakespeare) both of whose work betrays a suspiciously “continental” aesthetic. Their takes on Brechtian non-naturalism has consistently troubled our critics.

The best performances of 2009, in my opinion, were Cate Blanchett and Pamela Rabe as Richard II and III in Andrews’s vast, extraordinary The War of the Roses. The production shone a brilliant new light on a well-known text and revealed the interpretive range of these familiar actresses. The two women did not play men — not for a second were these drag performances — but embodied privilege and greed for power respectively. It was the boldest, finest, interpretation of Shakespeare Australia had seen in a long time.

As British critic Andrew Haydon has argued, the issue is not just about casting non-white, non-thin or non-male protagonists. Theatre creates meaning as much from the non-verbal signs it puts on stage as it does from the script. It does not need to be set around the block last Tuesday in order to be relevant to our lives.

On the theatre margins, companies like Back to Back, Rawcus and Restless — which work with people with physical and intellectual disabilities — play an important political role. Seeing these performers on stage, we become aware of the incredible beauty of bodies we normally consider unsightly. Such performances challenge our perception of who Australians may be, and what stories they may have to tell.

Yet aesthetically, their work is equally important. Back to Back is considered to be one of the finest theatre groups in this country — and this is doubtlessly a result of their innovative work methods. Their Food Court — an almost-wordless performance about bullying set to the music of The Necks — was among the most acclaimed theatre shows of 2008.

Because big theatres and big critics shun such experiments, they effectively nurture audiences who cannot read stage metaphor. Yet metaphor is not some avant-garde pretence but the basic building block of theatre.

Unlike film and television, which capture the world as it appears, theatre imaginatively creates its own reality. In this world, dying heroines find breath for entire arias, girls in white tutus play snowflakes and swans, and one woman’s existential despair is communicated by her burial waist-deep in earth. If we insist on theatre that amounts to live television in a classy setting, we betray our ignorance of the artform itself. Cordelia, after all, would have premiered as a man in a corset.

As long as we see the problem as one of loud minorities demanding political correctness, we fail to see that most of us, in fact, are excluded. After all, even though “arts arts” are patronised mainly by the white and the wealthy, it is the women, city dwellers and Australians of non-English-speaking background that research has identified as most appreciative of the arts. The same study shows that the elusive protagonist of Australian drama — country male, Australian-born of Australian-born parents — is the least likely demographic to think of arts as important in his life.

Lally Katz, who came to Australia from New Jersey with her parents when she was eight, writes plays immersed in whimsical surrealism. That she is not considered to be one of the most important Australian playwrights is a disgrace and it may be due to her gender, but it is certainly also related to her aesthetic. Yes, her Ern Malley mourns the fact that he doesn’t really exist, and her Canberra becomes an island with a volcano. Are these plays less Australian for their deviation from the suburban script?

As long as we keep thinking of Australian theatre as a narrow stream of tales about mateship and the outback, we restrict its capacity to help us imagine a shared present, let alone articulate an alternative future. For whatever reason, we are afraid to play.

Affirmative action is a good thing in principle, but the goal should not be simply to hire new hands to do old work. What we want, ultimately, is a greater range of perspectives and styles. We want new, imaginative universes in our stories so that we can understand better what this country is all about. We need diversity because we want innovation and excellence, not despite of it. We do our theatre no great service by protecting it from the best artists we have. Armed with an outdated and unimaginative idea of what theatre may represent, Australia, our main stage, remains as dull as dish water.

Originally published on 8 January 2010, on NewMatilda.com.

Tagged , , , , ,

‘Non-conventional casting’ continued…

I am swimming in the deep, deep waters of performativity and stage; that is, Butlerian performativity and Schechnerian stage. It is for the purposes of my thesis, and a very muddled place to be (not a place you’d pop over to straight before breakfast, say). But while wrestling with the questions of what it means when we do what we do, it was a pleasure to find that Andrew Haydon is back discussing cross-whatever casting, and how it relates to the questions of realism and representation in the theatre.

His post is here, and it is worth reading in total, including the more-or-less disgruntled comments. He raises all isues: race, gender, accent, realism, convention, British or Germanic, and spends more meaningful time on it than anyone I have seen recently. Do please have a read.

Tagged , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,


A post that slipped under my radar a near-month ago, Andrew Haydon in the Guardian theatre blog complains, with the characteristic spirit of advocacy, that mainstream Anglo-American theatre tradition remains absolutely married to the idea of literal-minded mimesis.

In itself this is not a new idea, but he relates it back to the political question of representation on stage:

There is virtually no hint that anything but the text can invent meaning on stage beyond dumb representation. This is partly why arguments about the “politics” of the physical proportions of actors are possible in the first place. Because a thin woman on stage finds herself representing nothing more than a thin woman, or, by extension, thin women. It's like we've grasped the idea that something on stage is pregnant with meaning, but, thanks to our abandonment of metaphor and our largely normative, descriptive so-called “political theatre”, the level of representation simply gets plugged into boring complaints about “pretty” girls getting all the jobs.

I would be terribly interested in exploring this idea further. Particularly the abandonment of metaphor.

Tagged ,

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.

Tagged , , , ,

The Chosen Vessel; unhappy.

15.xi.2007. The Petty Traffikers: The Chosen Vessel

Direction: Stewart Morritt. Cast: Chloe Armstrong, Joe Clements & Margot Knight. Design: Peter Mumford. Lighting design: Felicity Hoare. At Theatreworks, November 1-18.

The bush gothic may be the simplest way for the baffled settler to come to terms with this land, and seems to me to have remained the central axis of the Australian experience of the country (in its raw, unpaved, unlawned form). It's an Australia seen, perhaps, through the eyes of the tourist, the aesthete, but also a psychogeographical image of a genuinely frightening place that one shouldn't spit in the face of. There is, outside the grid and the lawn country and the sublimated aspirational monsters, a real grim, mourning old land. In Barbara Baynton's stories, though, the women have to cope with the land and the men, who treat them with an almost medieval violence, and an unchecked, irrational disregard that borders on hatred, not tempered by any society, any mores.

I'm still waiting for a loud appropriation of female suffering by the pan-Australian spirit (just like the Australian bush is the harshest in the world, so, the argument could go, is the suffering of our women). However, in Baynton's dark, almost impossibly violent stories, I am reminded, again and again, of the haunting Breza, a Croatian novella following a young woman in the country tortured by hard life, awful parents-in-law and an insensitive husband, whose spectre returns after a premature death, seeps into the landscape, to haunt the village. (This famous story was made into a film, and forever tainted my name with a rural tinge.) There may have been an entire trend in binding female suffering to a harsh land.

This production opens with A Dreamer, a classic gothic tale of a hostile nature imbued with all sorts of vaguely supernatural forces. It follows the journey of a young pregnant woman to visit her mother in the bush, fighting a storm, a river, and an entire country of men not to be trusted. In Squeaker's Mate, the most famous in the collection, a woman paralysed in an accident has to watch as her husband brings another woman in the house and lets the property go to ruin. Finally she's avenged by her dog. The final number, The Chosen Vessel, is a cat-and-mouse thriller of a woman left alone in her home, with only her small child, and a passing swagman: over a course of a day and night, he visits, leaves, stalks, rapes and kills her. The final third of this little number completely shifts perspective to an outsider, a member of the theatrical choir, who watched passively from the distance. This moment in the story most remarkably echoes the formal tools of Croatian romanticism of the same period: a young woman is sacrificed on the altar of unfair society only to live eternally as a nightmare in the collective (or individual) consciousness. The shift in the story represents the transition.

The quality of the text transpires from this production, and is probably why I didn't leave before the end. The stories were separated by fairly long breaks, giving us ample time to wonder over the director's solutions, shake our heads in confusion, but always go back in again. The Chosen Vessel, more than anything I've seen in my life, is a failure of direction. At times it felt that, every time an artistic choice had to be made, it was a wrong choice.

Two out of three pieces, A Dreamer and The Chosen Vessel, are adapted (although paraphrased may be a better word) as spoken pieces with movement, in which every word of the text is pronounced as well as enacted. This seemed an interesting decision, and was certainly successful in moments of peace, psychological games, and terror; the spoken word gives a nice rhythm to stage action and superimposes the interior world of the characters as another layer on the stage. Since the set is quite gorgeous, and the lighting beautiful, some static moments are absolutely thrilling: the finale scene in A Dreamer, or the swagman slowly circling the house in The Chosen Vessel. Any faster movement, however, is completely buried under the shower of words, and hampered by a need to enact every metaphor, every image from the text; from the branches of gum trees to lightning, from creaking doors to moonlight going dim. The literalness is most striking: there was no way these people were going to let the limitations of theatre prevent them from enacting the story down to a millimetre. If the character has to run for miles and miles, in the limited space of Theatreworks she will run in circles. If the character has to nearly drown, she nearly drowns in a bathtub full of water. If there has to be a galloping horse, there is a bright red bike, and it will, also, circle around the stage. Halfway through the performance, I realised I was in the middle of a radio drama. That is, a radio drama as I imagined them as a child: people added to voices, trees added to the rustle of leaves and tubs of water added to splashing noises, all on a black background.

Squeaker's Mate, least successfully, is paraphrased as a sort of mime. Sparse dialogue replaces incessant narration. The pleasant rhythm of the text is lost. An attempt is made to narrate through images, not words, still apparently painting every comma of the text. The horrific story of the crippled woman – which may have benefited from the third-person voice – completely dissipates through some very flimsy performances: Joe Clements as Squeaker is a comic figure, rather than a monster, Chloe Armstrong is a Terry Richardson mess without the stylish decadence, and Margot Knight should not be forced to mutate between a woman and a dog. I cannot imagine the acting inventory needed to pull that off and inspire absolute terror in the audience; frankly, I am not sure that anyone in the world could have done it. Instead of terrifying, it left us feeling vaguely embarrassed for witnessing such a clumsy theatrical solution.

Consistently, the greatest flaw of this production is a complete overuse of metonymy where metaphor would have been better suited. Whenever a theatrical substitute for a non-performable element had to be found, the substitute was clearly mimicking the form, rather than function. The tree falling onto Squeaker's wife to break her back, for example, is a short, thin branch of eucalyptus, when recreating the effect of size and weight would have worked better for the scene (as it is, a strong woman collapsing under a thin piece of tree is hardly verisimilitude). Drowning in the bathtub was an unconvincing farce (and I say this as a person who immoderately loves bathtubs on stage). A ranger will find the dead woman's body in The Chosen Vessel and draw a white chalk line around her! A gesture of absolute nonsense! The entire focus of the play until then had been to re-create this living, breathing bush around the flimsy manmade dwelling: to then draw white, urbane lines in what we had imagined as thick, gothic, ominous grass, assaults our suspension of reality at exactly the wrong point.

We understood, however, that the entire structure was internally incoherent with the choice of music in Squeaker's Mate. Mid-piece, Second Woman, in an act of frivolous home-overtake, turns the radio on, and The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma plays. This song doesn't fit the play in mood or intent, only in motif: it's a satirical, but warm, tongue-in-cheek portrait of an abusive boyfriend. As such, it's not neutral enough to be simply ignored, and, if we imagine the emotional effect that the piece had been building by then as a precarious cathedral, the cathedral suddenly and irrevocably starts to shatter. As the same piece finishes, and woman/dog murders the Squeaker, an even less fortunate choice of music is exercised with Who Let the Dogs Out. But by now the cathedral has been well and truly crushed.

If The Petty Traffikers 'have a reputation for mounting successful stage adaptations of Australian literature', as The Age claims, I wouldn't know. I'm still new here. Literary adaptations, it seems, too often suffer from being appreciated more as a text, than as a living piece of theatre, praised for the worrrrds and the poetrrry, their production flaws conveniently overlooked. This production may well tour many a school around here, and convince many a child that theatre is dead. I still cannot decide whether The Chosen Vessel is an interesting failure, worth seeing, or merely an uninteresting one. Barbara Baynton's short stories, mounted here, do appear to be fine writing, and the performance may be enjoyed as a radio drama with pictures. But who am I fooling?

SEE ALSO: Alison Croggon's review at Theatre Notes
our friend Cameron in The Age

Tagged ,

Melburnalia; acerbic.

We can learn from Kevin Lynch’s study The Image of the City that the “alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) [are not capable of consciously processing or localizing] their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves [they are at the mercy of].” The works in this program attempt by means of film and video to create a cartography or topography of a territory so as to reconquer a sense of a location’s construction and function. A landscape in a borderland, pathways in the megacity, a residential building, an office complex or a city which has been laid siege to in a past war: They are all redefined as social or allegorical spaces in which the remains of subjective and collective narratives, utopias and political programs are legible.
(Brigitta Burger-Utzer [in the introduction to Mapping the Territory])

1.xi. 2007. White Whale Theatre: Melburnalia

Director: David Mence. Dramaturge: Melanie Beddie. Ensemble: Terri Brabon, Ra chapman, Nadia Coreno, Laura Maitland, Jono Wood, Gareth Yuen. At fortyfivedownstairs. 1-3, 7-10, 14-17 November.

Melburnalia, on a casual thought, should be right up my alley, with urban theory and such. But beware casual thoughts: having been a prospective urbanist for some time now, I have seen a festivalful of films, and read a library of books trying to engage with space. Space, think of space as a cake: layered. The physical surface, the impression it leaves on the human mind, the way it shapes our understanding of reality (for it is no coincidence that mountains are holy in almost every culture); then the re-production of this understood reality through the manipulation of space, building and destruction; then the effect this manipulated space has on human society. Add generations of the now dead, and their attempts to leave an imprint, to be remembered, and the necessarily disfigured, distorted effect their remains now have on us, and it's a very complex thing, space. And cities, as oldest, densest centres of human activity, are by far the most intricate cakes of physical and psycho-geography. Most forms of art that claim to engage with space of any kind are wildly unsuccessful: they do it superficially, either by grouping disparate artists from an area, or by making a travel brochure, or by simply describing the ordinary that happens now, without giving a single thought to the web of memory, thought, trauma, folklore and power we have constructed (and continue to) through space. For this reason, when alerted to a spatial theme in art, I cringe ahead.

Film has by far a better chance, due to its expressive possibilities, to capture the spirit of a living, breathing place, because it can show, it doesn't need to tell; from the swanky Jarmusch and his places and peoples, through the fine-grained google-mapping of Cidade de Deus, to the experimental shorts. One of the works that stayed in my mind as perhaps the bravest exploration of how space and humans work together is the beautiful Mapping the Territory, a collection of formally and stylistically disparate shorts. Mapping the Territory, indeed is what I hoped Melburnalia may be: it started with a short consisting only of long, languid sequences of views from a US freeway; continued with citizens of Sarajevo taking us to their favourite city spots and telling the stories, in an entire pop manner; finished with descriptions of World War 2 battles juxtaposed with recent footage of same places, now agricultural fields, rural back yards, abandoned land. Stylistically they could not have been more different, yet there was a shared sense of, well, reclamation of territory by art. If theatre could do the same in Melburnalia, I thought, it will be terribly interesting.

In Melburnalia, Tee O'Neill's The Queen of Ringwood gives us a young criminal couple in the middle of an existential crisis in the outer suburbs. Kate Hudson's Waiting it Out is a late-evening conversation at The Galleon in St Kilda (just before it changed owners, I presume). Lally Katz offers her trademark silly surrealism in The Fag from Zagreb set in the equally silly mid-suburban Kew. Alice Pung goes back to Footscray in Educating Riah, which looks very much like a scene right out of her Unpolished Gem. Finally, Ross Mueller deconstructs the CBD in Becoming Greg Stone. And allow me here a casual observation that, if these short plays ever met each other at a party, they would have almost nothing to say to each other. The quality of direction, the acting of the evening, all seemed to rise and fall with the wildly oscillating quality of writing, as if the audience was not the only one struggling in frustration.

Theatre, like books, works with essentially abstract building blocks (words, movement, symbols), does not enjoy the opulence of the recorded reality that film has. Both media have to reconstruct the entire sense of space on the blank surface that is the white page, or the black box. As a result, they have a freedom to go straight in, through the material, into the geography of thought, memory, trauma, power. Text can lean on the essay form, or on the impression: the French moderne, from Baudelaire to Zola, offers a clearer image of that infernal machine that the 19th-century industrial city was (industrial city as our trauma and object of fascination) than some photograph of the time could. But theatre? The dangers of trying to substitute one verisimilitude, of showing space, with another, of performing space, of staging the supposed 'typical' actions and loudly labelling the space, were obvious to me. But I was hopeful. I thought, whoever attempted to produce a short-play collection on different suburbs of Melbourne, certainly gave a thought to their theme and form.

Instead. To paraphrase Brigitta, in Melburnalia there is not only very little sense of a location’s construction and function, there is also very little theatre. Not only did we jiggle in our seats trying to see suburbs redefined as social or allegorical spaces in which the remains of subjective and collective narratives, utopias and political programs are legible to no avail, we also witnessed some very bad theatre. The first problem may have been to choose writers that work in prose, not drama; or, more precisely, writers not at all acquainted with the medium. Kate Holden and Alice Pung's works are essentially television pieces, or 19th-century theatre at the very stretched best. Television, indeed, may be seen as the logical child of the well-made play, particularly the studio soap and the sit-com, and no value judgement done, but do we not have enough television, and its expressive range, in our lives as it is? There is more to the theatrical form than the unity of time, space and action, but these two works don't know that. Perhaps the problem was of a more complex kind: the two young writers' published work is inextricably tied to documenting their own strange life in their suburbs, and for Melburnalia they have simply produced more of the vaguely autobiographical same. Lars von Trier might have managed to get them out of their comfort zones and get some real drama on the boards, but then, would Lars want to get involved in a sector where nobody, as a rule, gets paid?

That Tee O'Neill's The Queen of Ringwood watches like television as well is a bigger problem, because O'Neill is a playwright. I, unlike some, enjoyed her Requiem for the 20th century, found much of interest in the condensed staging of the world and a hundred years in those few hours, but Requiem was a million times more theatrical than the slice of East-Enders presented here. Only Lally and Mueller's playlets are, in this case, actual theatre. Perhaps it's due to their formal success that I feel they are also the only two pieces successfully engaging with space.

The other three works simply say, this is what's happening there, now. Watch, oh theatre-going Melbourne! The Queen of Ringwood manages to be downright offensive, with its facile equation of outer suburb and poor and political: I got the same stomach-wring I feel when the Balkans are quickly viewed as warring, passionate and Gypsy. Pung makes another step down the road of getting typecast forever as the writer of the deprived ethnics (which will be a terrible shame if it happens). All very simplistic, very earnest, and fundamentally not representing any space: junkie lovers are a cliché of Australiana, Chinese girls worldwide fall in love, and PhD students could lament the passing of Fitzroy as well (only sans prostitutes and – let me disgress – the weakest part of Hudson's playlet may be simply that St Kilda is a very interesting suburb, that one doesn't need to dig deep to find interesting situations, but is that enough?).

What Katz and Mueller do, however, is very interesting. In what's probably the best piece of this puzzle ( and you know it immediately from the way she doesn't use Croatia for yet another war story), Katz bites straight into the heart of mid-suburbia: lonely schoolboys, resounding empty houses, imagination going wild, silence creeping in the corners, and apocalypse bears. There is something of History of Violence and Caché in Katz's story: that acute feeling that we've pushed all the bad things so far out of our lives that they must have mutated into monsters, that the doors (of wardrobes, cupboards, of the outside world) will break open soon and the bad things will come to haunt us. As was cheerfully concluded afterwards, in so many of the proverbial aspirational households of Australia there is a real potential for an apocalypse bear. The use of space is wonderful: the lack of movement, the sense of being trapped inside a cushy house, the profound unreality of everything outside (the forest behind the Kew Junction, Zagreb, drama classes in Richmond or Toorak). Using only theatre, Kew is painted in vivid colours as an ark of little island-houses floating in this imaginary world, where awful things may or may not happen, but certainly aren't real.

Mueller puts together the CBD of black-clad latte-sippers and rubbish in the laneways, frantic coffee service for the glitterati by the aspiring glitterati, possibilities and failure, with a wonderful (and both very theatrical and very CBD) energy. The progressively surreal story every once in a while explodes in a cloud of political desperation, then quickly subsides back to the mundane; this may be the best expression of the left-wing Melburnian attitude to life I've noticed around. Taking CBD as the mirror of us all, here it is: the place as a mindspace, not a set for an ethnographic documentary, and certainly not a backdrop for well-made social critique in the true 19th-century sense. The detail of Greg Stone the homeless, Greg Stone the sleeping waiter, was just a wonderful little observation: how many times does it look like that laneway coffee is coming to you from a heap of rubbish in the corner? How much of CBD, and of Melbourne throughout history, was just such a combination of international glory, yet one that you can't find the unmarked door to?

I can't escape the feeling that we might have appreciated Becoming Greg Stone more, for its fine humour, imagination and employment of theatrical devices, had it not come after hours, hours, and many more hours of theatralised television. I don't doubt that the unsuccessful of the plays might work very well on television, even offer an engagement with space (and wouldn't it be nice to reclaim Footscray for the pan-Australian family soap?). But good television does not good theatre make, and, as it stands, we got two very interesting short plays at the price of an evening of frustration.

As a prospective urbanist, and an unhappy art-observer, I hope this trend for trivially tackling space will pass soon. And no trend for freshening up theatre with trendy writers will develop.

SEE ALSO: Michael Magnusson 's (wildly disagreeing) review at On Stage (and walls) Melbourne:


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?
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

Tagged , ,