Tag Archives: script

REVIEW: The Threepenny Opera

The always-vexing question of the ‘right’ way to do a playtext is particularly vexed when it comes to Brecht; to stage Brecht is almost invariably to fail Brecht.

While Brecht’s influence on modern theatre cannot be overstated, mainly through his theory of Verfremdungseffekt, theorist Brecht coexists with Brecht the dramatist and Brecht the theatre-maker, and those among us who assume that the three are always in agreement imbue Bertolt with a Godlike infallibility, and his words with biblical weight. The reality is more complicated. Brecht’s works did not always achieve his theatrical goals, his plays have worked against his intentions, and while much of the program he set for the new theatre (disrupting the illusion, mobilising the audience’s morality, the use of technology, truncation of catharsis, etc) has been the key force propelling 20th-century dramaturgy, he has not always been the one to find the answers to the questions he has posed. Moreover, the effect and effectiveness of Brecht’s theatre has changed with time: his influence has been so thorough that few of his formal inventions have the same freshness today, and the political milieu of 2010 is thoroughly different from what it was before the World War II.

Finally, Brecht the technician and dramaturg has always been undermined by Brecht the epigrammatist. The strength of Brecht’s writing is in his one- and two-liners: ‘what is robbing a bank, compared to founding a bank?’, ‘Would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?’, ‘unfortunate is the land that needs heroes.’ There is no opportunity for a good aphorism that Brecht would not use – his epic theatre, in a sense, is an epigrammatic theatre, intended to kick us about with little paradoxes – even when the totality of the work around the two-liner doesn’t hold too well as a result. This is the problem with his musical works: how could a man like that not enjoy a form that is terminally fragmented between songs and prose, a form in which every fifteen minutes one gets to put an accent on the last verse?

The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first blockbuster, a huge hit despite the shambolic way in which it was made – or perhaps precisely because of it. It is Brecht at his least cohesive: a plot taken from John Gay’s 1727 opera, a plot only loosely translated into Victorian London slash Weimar Berlin, with characters launching into songs often completely disconnected from their theatrical situation. It was shaped significantly by the strong creative input from everyone involved in the first production, and John Fuegi (perhaps exaggeratedly) credits Elisabeth Hauptmann, Brecht’s lover at the time, with good 80-90% of the text (for which she received a pittance, as is often the case with career-minded men). The day before it opened, the whole crew proclaimed a looming disaster. Instead, it became an overnight success. Brecht himself couldn’t quite admit that the bourgeoisie was enjoying his scathing, subversive critique of their moral universe. But the bourgeoisie hummed the catchy tunes, loved the dark humour: the epigrammatist won by a mile.

This is why it’s difficult to talk about a success or a failure of a production of The Threepenny Opera. Who decides? Can we judge it by the amount of alienation and political commitment it shows? Brecht had read Marx by the time it opened, in 1928, but it would be another full two years before he first tries to sketch the principles of ‘epic theatre’. We cannot really demand from the works of a young man to demonstrate the thinking of the old, not even with theatre’s peculiar understanding of temporality (which is to say, a play is always atemporal to a degree, as it exists now as well as then). How can we judge it by the extent to which it fulfils a program it probably never fulfilled?

Eddie Perfect and Paul Capsis. Photo: Garth Oriander.

Michael Kantor’s production, currently playing at the Malthouse to sold-out houses, has all the usual flaws and merits of a Kantor production. It is no different in style and execution to his many other productions, and this may be its one salient failure: it doesn’t demonstrate an attempt to grapple with the peculiarity of the material as much as give us more of Kantor’s usual concoction of elements. From Peter Corrigan’s mannerist set to the uneven cast (which includes cabaret performers and trained singers of diverse skills), it is an impressionistic rendering rather than a smooth dramaturgical machine. It is gratuitously camp; it is soft on piercing critique and hard on vague gesture.

Kurt Weill’s score is delivered intact by Victorian Opera, generously, for Weill’s music is still bliss to the ears. Anna O’Bryne as Polly Peachum is a revelation, a gorgeous singer and a fierce actress, giving a raw, rude sanguinity to an often neglected role, while Paul Capsis’s majestic Jenny steals every scene (including many in which Jenny doesn’t appear). Eddie Perfect, on the other hand, grows croaky towards the end, and plays a Macheath with vile temper, rather forgetting any sense of fun – but then, it is fair to assume that Perfect was not cast for his vocal abilities. The greatest failure is, without a doubt, the set and the costumes (and I confess to feeling alarmed by this statement: what does it mean when so much of the production hinges on the way the stage is dressed?). There is no point in discussing the way Raimondo Cortese’s precise translation, which re-sets the play into contemporary Melbourne, clashes with the outrageous, no-era costuming, or how the faux-constructivist panel sits meaninglessly behind a set designed, awkwardly, unnecessarily, distractingly, as a boxing ring (demanding the rope pulled down for certain fourth-wall-breaking songs, but not for others). I did not detect any intention for making a coherent statement, against which incoherency could be judged a failure. The rare moments in which the production pulls together (such as the grand repeat of Mack the Knife before the interval, and Mack’s icily cynical pre-hanging speech) do not so much underline the confusion of the rest, as simply look out of place.

In this city, we have spent too much time lately discussing the finer points of camp, and the departing AD of the Malthouse is largely responsible. We have discussed its moral backbone, its stylistic variations, its humour, its targets. Enough. Can the Threepenny be campified? Demonstrably, it can. Does it improve? No, but neither is it particularly harmed. If you take Lotte Lenya’s words seriously, that it is the “subtleness behind the obviousness that gives strength to The Threepenny Opera”, then it ought to be admitted that there is not a lot of subtlety in this particular production, not in, above, or behind it. Perhaps a stronger directorial hand would have wrestled some poignancy into this wild, unruly text. Perhaps we would have seen through our modern-day bourgeois morality. These aren’t the right questions to ask. What we have, instead, is a somewhat perverse celebration of the criminal underworld, with singing and lavish dresses. That cutting, mean Berliner humour has been blown up into something a little farcical, a little broad. Does it matter? Only if you have serious expectations from yet another Kantor camp operetta. And only if you are serious about this whole business of staging Brecht ‘right’.

On the other hand, the production has sparked some soul-searching on the part of the GP (which is how those who go to the theatre lovingly refer to those who don’t). As non-GP, I am both surprised, puzzled and pleased. Perhaps this is exactly the theatre we need. Or deserve. I suspect Brecht would see the humour.

The Threepenny Opera. By Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Text: Raimondo Cortese. Lyrics: Jeremy Sams. Director: Michael Kantor. Conductor: Richard Gill. With: Casey Bennetto, Paul Capsis, Judi Connelli, Jolyon James, Melissa Langton, Amy Lehpamer, Anna O’byrne, Eddie Perfect, Dimity Shepherd, Grant Smith, John Xintavelonis. Malthouse, Merlyn Theatre, May 28 – June 19. The season has officially sold out, but more tickets may become available closer to each performance. Check the Malthouse website for updates.

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Life… is a Dream.

Seeing a progression in someone’s work the wrong way around is always intriguing for the possibilities it offers for misreading, or overly simplifying. Having seen Daniel Schlusser’s Peer Gynt before Life is a Dream (a remount of which has just closed at The Store Room – but bear with my lateness, for I am working hard), it is easy to see a history, kernels yet to be developed. Foucault warns against this, asking to do a genealogy instead. Well.

Life is a Dream premiered in late 2008, and appears to set up the framework for the complex theatrical text (as in weaving, textile) that Peer Gynt, in early 2009, became. It inserts Calderón de la Barca’s baroque dramatic text into a layering of fantasies. It removes all but scraps of text, which appear not as the truth of the performance, but its final point of unreality – a relatively consensual game played by children trapped in a room. It settles on a relaxed, thinly performative mode. The reality of the stage is paramount, tactile, driving all else: the whole performance timed to a whistling kettle. The performers are sometimes characters, sometimes calling each other by their name. It is playful, smart theatre.

Back in 2008, the premise would have been clearly recognised as a reference to Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who, it had just been discovered, had sexually abused his daughter for 24 years, keeping her locked up in his basement, together with the three children born out of the affair. The children have since become subjects of psychiatric study, as they grew up in total isolation from social reality – the eldest was 19 when they were released. These are the children of Life is a Dream: a posse of completely unsocialised human beings, their mother gone, making up their world as they go along. The dynamic between them is subtly realised, and often mesmerising to watch: we realise that some children are barely able to speak, but some have a patchy sense of the world, and they use this epistemological high ground to dominate the others. At most times, however, theirs is a mini-society set up according to a completely nonsensical premise: the mother is dead, the father was never there, there is someone to blame, and someone to punish.

Schlusser uses the kettle (constantly boiling water) as a theatrical clepsydra. Between endlessly recurring cups of tea, we get a sense of the terrible, maddening boredom of the basement, the despair and the physical frustration of confinement, and the physical and psychic aggression that builds up and can only be relieved through ever more inventive games. In one, Sophie Mathisen directs and choreographs the story of the Sleeping Beauty on herself and children. In another, Calderón’s play is played.

The layering of dream and reality in Life is a Dream is perversely disfigured: Segismundo, a confined prince, is released into the Polish court. Waking up in society for the first time, he kills and rapes and is drugged and returned to his tower, and told the previous day was just a vivid dream. However, a revolting gang frees him and he wins the throne, sparing the father who had imprisoned him, marrying off secondary characters; still unsure of whether this part is dream or reality, but convinced that even in dreams we have to behave honourably. Yet, in Schlusser’s basement, Segismundo may have been imprisoned in the corner toilet his whole life, or only for the duration of one game. He may be liberated for good, or just until another game starts. We don’t know. What we do understand, as the kettle boils again, is that there will be a lot more time to waste.

At the end of 2009, the Fritzl case withdraws as the first interpretive prism, and the filthy room could now be a sealed and forgotten nuclear shelter, an aftermath of war, or submerged under the melted glaciers. The tragedy is no less clear, but its meaning is more generalised.

One of the things that have always intrigued me about Life is a Dream has been the questionable relationship between what we see and what we know, or a certain doubt in the reality of reality, that Baroque shared with our age (or certainly the post-modernity pre-9/11). There is not only the similarity of stories to judge from: the skepticism of both Life is a Dream and, say, Matrix. It’s also the delight in surfaces, in excessive decoration, in motion as opposed to stillness. * What seems to connect the periods is the general acceptance of affectation and mannerism as self-evidently and widely appreciated. (Now, we could generalise further, we have entered a period more akin to rococo. Subtler, gentler, but equally, if not more, mannerist. Wes Anderson, in this interpretation, would be the Watteau of our age.) The comparison also looms over as a threat of future insignificance, incomprehensibility, the overly stylised baroque literary style is near-impossible to read today, in almost any European language. What’s more, few care. Bound-up in looking up its own arse, comparatively little of the period has survived in literature as important for the canon.

While Life is a Dream is as baroque as 2008 gets, it is a comparatively clean, tidy and elegant production, and I have to say I preferred the bewilderingly complex Peer Gynt. Perhaps it comes with familiarity with method: the layering of realities, the sense of anti-performative, real time and space that anchored the stage overburdened with worlds, the accumulation of detail, the snippety use of text. Life is a Dream is tied together with a good knot, but it is far less exciting once we can read what is inside, or even predict what will come next. And some things are not as well executed: the use of music (a moment of Nick Cave, and the threatening bass of Massive Attack’s Angel that closes the show) is strangely dysfunctional, neither integrated with the subtlety of the total, nor incongruent enough to be ironic. (Compare with a burst of soap bubbles at the end of Peer Gynt, a brilliantly off-handed gesture to manic stupidity.) There is a resolute rhythm, and a purposeful meaningfulness to much of the dialogue that lets the production lean slightly too much towards a sit-com: a sort of feigned casualness that is shredded away in Peer Gynt. But this is what I mean by ‘tidy’ and ‘clean’.

Finally, there is a thin film of melodrama in the conceit: the basement, the tragedy, the poignancy of it all. The loveliest improvement of Peer Gynt on the formal skelleton of Life is a Dream is the exquisite lightness it brings to very much the same philosophical inquiry, same existential despair. It manages to create the same desolation, the same absurdity and grief, by making a puzzle out of the most banal, most inconsequential elements: a wedding rehearsal, a game of Fußball, plastic chairs, soap bubbles. It doesn’t signpost its intentions with trip-hop. It smiles as wide as nothingness.

I wonder what comes next.

*For a long time, I very firmly associated Calderon’s play to the general weirdness of Shoujo Kakumei Utena:

Life is a Dream, adapted from Pedro Calderón de la Barca, translated by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, special make-up effects by Dominique Noelle Mathisen, composed by Darrin Verhagen, stage management by Pippa Wright, produced by Sarah Ernst. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. The Store Room, November 18-29.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seven Jewish Children (1?)

Melbourne has had its reading of Seven Jewish Children, its donation bucket and panel afterwards, and yet I am a little surprised that no follow-up discussion has appeared, not even among the bloggers. I imagine it has something to do with the supreme lack of time we all seem to profess at the moment. I certainly have many better things I could be doing. However, I wanted to leave a short note, even if only to signpost: was there.

Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children is a very beautiful, if tiny, piece of writing, and the biggest failure of the event was quite possibly to use it as a pretext for the panel. I am not sure I would classify it as a political piece, simply. To my reading eye, Children is a text about ethics, community, and conscience, not politics. To those who haven’t read it, it is structured into seven short scenes, in which an unnumbered group of people, with unassigned lines, argue about how to explain seven unnamed moments of recent Israeli history (hiding from the Nazi, the Holocaust – and bear with me when I say ‘Israeli’, I will explain later – moving to Israel, the settlements, the Six Day’s War, the second Intifada, and the most recent attack on Gaza; the references are clear, but left unstated), to an unnamed child, which Churchill stipulates must be absent from the stage. The recurring phrases are: tell her that… – don’t tell her that… – don’t frighten her – don’t tell her THAT.

It is a chilling text to read when, like me, you’ve grown up listening to adults arguing over your head about what you should, and shouldn’t know. Perhaps it is this experience that makes me see Seven Jewish Children as a generous, sympathetic play where many people seem to see blatant anti-Semitism. I asked many questions when I was little, and I remember these conversations exploding into entire family arguments over my little head: tell her this!, tell her that!, don’t tell her that, that’s not true!, and the recurring phrase (one that Churchill leaves out): she is old enough to know. I was old enough to know all sorts of things about how evil the enemy was, how evil the neighbours were, how rotten the state, the continent, the world was. It was a little fight between my parents, and my parents and the world. Parents demarcate their world, their worldviews, their values, through their children, their children signpost a success, an influence. Thus we have vegetarian children, Christian children, Steiner-school children, children who play the violin at the age of three, and children old enough to parrot their parents’ political views.

Just like at my kitchen table, in Seven Jewish Children adults, through parenting advice, are discussing their political views with one another. Yet they are also mounting pressure and breaking down, and this is where Churchill’s extreme rhetorics (David Jays) should not be taken as a condemnation of some cold-blooded, exterminating Zionism or other. The inward-looking worldview of the parent is, here, struggling against the pressure from the disjointed, illogical, terrifying and shameful exterior that cannot be kept outside. As much as, in the face of a terrible world, we would all rather turn Amish than have to teach our children the rules of survival, inwardness cannot be kept forever. (A couple of very interesting films and plays have, since 9/11, focused on this problem of the intruding exterior: most notably The History of Violence and Cache but also, say, Mercury Fur.) The warm, vanilla-scented interior of the community needs to be opened up to the messy, violent exterior that we are responsible for and that contradicts our very values. It is a struggle to keep something complicated simple, for a child, and to protect them without lying, to her but mainly to oneself. And the breaking points happen: one can no longer speak truth because the truth is too unpleasant, or because lies don’t make sense anymore, or because the exterior has gone out of hand. Tell her we kill far more of them is a terrible thing to say, but I’ve heard adults say it over children’s heads, all good people who don’t kill other people, who give small change to the homeless, who hate conflict most of the time; but who are, in that moment, voicing a worldview which exists as legitimately as brotherhood and unity, in their world. They do kill far more of them, or they wish they do, it’s said often enough, she will learn the phrase sooner or later. Parenting becomes an impossible game that needs to be played nonetheless.

So Churchill’s playlet notates the progression of failing rhetoric in the face of a terrible situation; hardly a thing to call anti-Semitic. Yet it is precisely her insistence on making the play political that creates the problems. The text itself is poetic, ambiguous: keeping it free of performance rights, thus encouraging readings and staging worldwide, asking for donations to be made for Gaza and so on, are the external devices that made it into a political play, and it is, I think, a strategic mistake for Churchill. It makes us read a fundamentally literary text in terms of its political use-value, and a number of problems emerge: suddenly every literary gesture needs to stand for either condemnation or justification. To read the text politically ultimately diminishes its value as a work of art, without adding much. But there is a point to make here, too.

More than one person has felt that labeling the children Jewish signposts the dilemma of an entire religious/ethnic group, rather than a nation. It is possible to argue that the Holocaust is a Jewish, not an Israeli tragedy, that it was important to be correct. However, the inclusion of the Holocaust, if anything, tilts the political position (if there is one) of the play towards justifying one kind of violence with another (you see?, strategic mistake). This is exactly the same as the liberal-European position that justifies Islamic terrorism on the grounds of the colonial injustices suffered, or – why not? – Palestinian bombings with the state of Gaza. Yet behind every single nation-state there is the trauma of the preceding displacement: behind the nation-making violence of Yugoslavia was the trauma of the semi-colonial bloodshed of the world wars, just like behind the unification of Germany may be the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, as Zizek points out, there is a foundational violence at the beginning of every nation: there were people living in just about every land before those currently living there arrived. Israel’s peculiarity is that its own foundational violence, the displacement of Palestinians, is too historically close to be conveniently forgotten. The problematic of the play is so universal that it could be transposed to every single country in the world, as long as it was willing to travel into the history: Seven American Children, starting with religious prosecution in Europe and ending with the genocide of the Native Americans; Seven French Children, in which the revolutionary terror spills over into the Napoleonic wars; Seven Australian Children, and so on. It is a universal story of a dishonest history lesson: and who hasn’t ever had one?

The problem with reading the play politically is that all this needs to be taken into account (and more, and more…). If this historical linearity between foundational violence is taken on into the future, if the arbitrary line between distant and recent history is not drawn (the violent and unfair gesture with which we relegate our past crimes to the past, refuse our victims the right to be historically wronged, and pretend nothing has happened), then the past keeps returning as a terrible justification of whatever our present crimes may be.


However, using this play as a pretext for a discussion on Gaza creates a set of problems much bigger than anything enumerated so far.

I am hoping to be able to continue this. However, I am enormously busy at the moment…
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Semi- and non-reviews: text

I have been in spillover for weeks now. That means: at the end of every day, a little bit of unfinished work spills over into the morning. The accumulating backlog, or just ballast of duties, is, with the end of semester edging closer, just about to become unmanageable. I am toiling on three intellectual (but unrelated) fronts – my research job, my degree, and my writing, theatre or otherwise – and I can recognise the feeling of brain in deep fryer that always precedes mental burnouts.

Four shows are currently playing in Melbourne, two I have already seen, and two I will soon. All deserve to be treated with much more dedication than I can currently give them. Hoy Polloy – whom I had a skirmish with, this time last year, over theatre and naturalism – are currently doing a Franz Xaver Kroetz play, Mensch Meier, a moment of 1970s German ubernaturalism; while, across the river, Simon Stone of Hayloft Project directs Phillip Ridley’s Leaves of Glass for Red Stitch. Leaves of Glass looks like another contemporary British post-realist drama about family, memory and dark secrets, and is Ridley’s second outing in Melbourne after the acclaimed Mercury Fur in 2007 (with Luke Mullins, Russ Pirie and Aaron Orzech, who has since gone on to do great things). It’s also Stone’s second gig for Red Stitch, after the similarly acclaimed pool, no water by Mark Ravenhill this-time-last-year (which I missed). Uh, a lot of name-dropping. I haven’t seen either of the two, and can only recommend them on the basis of my own interest.

However, the other two plays I recommend wholeheartedly on the basis of having seen them. They both finish this weekend, and are worth catching. At Trades Hall, IGNITE are doing A Dream Play, Strindberg’s 1901 proto-surrealist play, in a new, terse version by Caryl Churchill; across the river (note the perfect symmetry of this text), Paul Terrell directs Fernando Arrabal’s Garden of Delights, a 1968 work of ripe surrealism. I am seriously torn over the right phrasing: both are flawed works, but exciting in the way in which a staging of an unearthed and unforgotten (de-forgotten) classic is exciting. IGNITE’s Strindberg, despite the stellar cast (which reads like a who-is-who of Melbourne’s independent theatre) and Olivia Allen’s intelligent direction, seems somehow nervous and underdone when one would expect a certain deftness of touch (both because of the age of the play and the reputations of the artists involved). Describing the play, Strindberg wrote: anything is possible and probable. It is disappointing that rather early on the visual, narrative and emotional possibilities and probabilities of the production are clearly marked. Terrell’s Arrabal, on the other hand, would benefit immensely from being exactly half the length (or double the pace), without losing a single bit of stage business. Arrabal’s oneiric fantasia of repressed childhood and distorted feminine sexuality proceeds at a Jodorowskian pace that gives an air of datedness to the production, which it doesn’t require. However, both are works of theatre on very strong foundations, marrying exquisite text with visual richness in a way rarely even attempted by either physical or textual theatre these days.

I am convinced that the way forward for Melbourne theatre is through surrealism – while I’m not sure it is in historical revivals, it is certainly on the other side. My problem with both productions stems from the geohistorical moment, the meaning of surrealism in a society without oppressive structures. But it’s a frivolous argument, one I don’t have the stamina to develop this week. Until I have thought my way through this conundrum, found out exactly what’s nagging me, for which I do need to brush up on my Freud, I suspect I should say only that these productions should definitely be seen.

A Dream Play. By August Strindberg, in a new version by Caryl Churchill. Direction Olivia Allen. Cast: Gary Abrahams, Meredith Penman, Mark Tregonning , Michael Finney , Heath Miller , Kate Gregory, Nicholas Dubberley, Hannah Norris, Karen Roberts. Sound Design by Russel Goldsmith. Lighting Design by Angela Cole. Set and Costume Design by Kat Chan, and Eugyeene Teh. New Ballroom, Trades Hall, Carlton South, until May 5-17.

Garden of Delights. By Ferando Arrabal. Adapted & Directed by: Paul Terrell. Produced by: Nic Halliwell. Set Designed by: Yunuen Perez. Lighting Designed by: Katie Sfetkidis. Sound Designed by: Keith McDougall. Costume Designed by: Chloe Greaves. Stage Managed by: Amelia Jackson. And Featuring: Jono Burns, Austin Castiglione, Marita Fox and Julia Harari. Theatreworks, Apr 30 – May 16.

Tom Fool / Mensch Meier. By Franz Xaver Kroetz, translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, directed by Beng Oh. Design by Chris Molyneux, lighting design by Ben Morris, sound design by Tim Bright. With Chris Bunworth, Liz McColl and Glenn van Oosterom. Hoy Polloy, Brunswick Mechanics Institute until May 23.

Leaves of Glass. By Philip Ridley, directed by Simon Stone. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Kimberley Kaw. With Dan Frederiksen, Johnny Carr, Jillian Murray and Amelia Best. Red Stitch, until May 30.

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RW: The Wonderful World of Dissocia + Metamorphosis

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

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

The Wonderful World of Dissocia

The Wonderful World of Dissocia, STC, April 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Trailer for Vesturport’s Metamorphosis at Lyric Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apocalypse and circular revenge: A View of Concrete & Family Stories

In Melbourne in 2006, Alison Croggon suspected she may not have liked Gareth Ellis's script of A View of Concrete half as much without Lauren Taylor's direction. In Sydney in 2008, I think she got it right. In Zagreb in 2005, I walked out of a derelict factory, seeing a nightmarish production of Family Stories, ready to call it one of the world's best plays. In Sydney in 2008, it is a curious experience to watch the same piece of writing deflated into a pancake. None of the two would have survived in the playtext marketplace had the Sydney productions been their first shot at glory. While the brilliance of the second play still saves the Ride On production, making it a pleasant night out, the decency of the Belvoir Downstairs staging doesn't camouflage the writing in the first as great, which its Malthouse premiere may just had done.

A View of Concrete; Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, Sydney, 2008.

Apart from marketplace chance, the two plays don't quite intersect, but they do give each other a little bum rub on their way. Both, despite being totally genre-deviant, come astonishingly close to apocalyptic drama. More specifically, both are concerned with the disruption of self in a world turned upside-down.

The self exists in partnership either with God or a philosophy that denies or accommodates Him. It is no wonder that, after every period of upheaval, the search for a new self, and a new ordering principle, begins. The entire history of the twentieth-century art has been a pendulum of discarded hopes. The fascisms of the first post-war period, as the strategy of adjustment to previously unimaginable violence was to appropriate it as something vast, irrational, yet intrinsic to human nature. The self, in this case, found solace in the superhuman agglutinated mass speaking straight to the natural order, the mass as the image of a single man. The absurdisms of the second post-war, on the other hand, in Bodin's words, replaced the 'theatre of character' with a 'theatre of situation'.
Protagonists, who understood the zeitgeist, stepped back into the chorus. To be a victim became the identity of the day, and the term guilt was unheard of.

However defeatist I may sound – and I am wary of implying too strong a nihilism in Srbljanovic's work, as she is a well-known political activist – there is a strong backbone of this sentiment in both plays. “It is not so much that the self needs a God, but that it cannot stand alone,” continues Bodin. In the absence of an extrinsic unifying principle, the uncertain self will react by trying to restore unity. This can happen through the acceptance of the rupturing element, as in Futurism, or through idyllic autism, as in Miranda July, or through the cathartic extrapolation of the shaky self onto the entire world. Apocalypse.

The methods of doing away with solid ground are multiple: social catastrophes (in particular extensive warfare, mutations, linguistic degradation, or great changes of the mores), natural disasters (usually coupled with social change), drugs, ESP and other forms of mental fiddling (such as in Phillip K Dick's work), or destabilization of foundational truths (such as Behold the Man, in which Christianity turns out to be one deranged man's idée fixe). In each case, the protagonist is taking down the whole set and chorus with her. There is more to it, the micro-reasons of the popularity of apocalyptic stories. Now mostly categorized as a sub-genre of SF, apocalypse is, of course, a quintessential Christian genre. The Apocalypse was written at the end of the first century to console the early believers during a time of persecution; a fairly typical imagined punishment of the oppressor, transferred into the future, and into the hands of an external figure. There are still traces of this sentiment in the glee with which we watch disaster films. However, the explosion of apocalyptic SF in the twentieth century takes it to a whole other level. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, not trivially, refers to it as the holocaust theme, speculating it may be the biggest sub-genre within SF, and charting its ascent from the end of WWI. Apocalypse or holocaust, it is a family quite different from dystopia, which presents fairly stable stages of degenerate societies, and is generally a critique of normative beliefs and ideals, taking them to their extreme, but logical end. Apocalypse is an image ordered by the logic of a distressed psyche. In other words, dystopia is political, while the apocalypse religious.

Neither of the two plays is a proper, cathartic apocalypse, although one wants to be, while the other looks it. A View of Concrete, by Gareth Ellis, written in Melbourne in the noughties, follows four characters as they drug themselves unconscious, their paranoias and manias escalate, and a fifth invisible character is conveniently killed at the point of climax, all on the backdrop of a world collapsing under environmental stress. The animals, we learn, are committing suicide, and there are ever fewer hours of daylight. However, while this play looks like it's playing by the book, a genuine apocalypse would require a genuine destabilising method. The environmental chaos isn't one, as it is only brought up in passing, as a kind of frill. Neither is there a true collapse of social order, described as your quite ordinary Saturday night in many a juvenile circle; if taking speed is meant to signal the end of the world, I live in the Middle East, not merely East Brunswick. And, most crucially, there has been no foundational truth shattered, because that would require introduction of abstract thought, which Australian dramatic writing has notorious problems with.

A View of Concrete; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, 2006.

There is an opening, though, towards the end of the play, when Jacquie shouts into the sky (which is where God normally lives), and I very roughly paraphrase: How do you live when there are no certain truths? There we go. That's our answer. The grand tragedy behind A View of Concrete is postmodernity.

Immediately the entire play is revealed to be a very inadequately dressed-up today. While everyone, not just the occasional bemused passer-by to Neighbours, has long been aware that the documentation of suburban existence doesn't really provide thrilling stories, there are more elegant ways to solve this problem. There are ways to add drama more subtle than putting the end of the world outside the door. The four distressed characters are now recognisable as very ordinary locals, and their paranoias and manias quickly revealed as rather trivial preoccupations of suburban adolescents. The girl dieting to shrink into a fairy, thus, becomes an ordinary infantilised female, escaping from sexual and intellectual maturity into a dream world of fairies, eating disorders and childhood memories, like countless young Australian women. The root of this behaviour being linked more to the sheltered suburban upbringing, and a particular method of child-rearing (pin-pointed in a blinkably missable moment when she takes enormous offense at being patronised), than to the tough existence of a holocaust survivor, linking her mania to drug abuse or social chaos is absolutely senseless. The same is true for the other three characters: suburban cynicism of children who don't believe in reality because they never fell off a tree masquerades as the tough nihilism of a drug dealer; the crisis of domesticated masculinity, finding outlet in the paranoid surveillance of the foreign, male neighbour, and the feminist crisis of control gained at the expense of controlability, structured power in a world unstructuring itself, are both real and worth exploring, yet are very clumsily stretched to be now drugged psychosis, now apocalyptic despair, now sexual deviation, now outrage over dead animals…

A View of Concrete; Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, 2006.

I don't think this is spatio-temporal narcissism. I think it's the unwillingness, widely present in Australian writing, to get close to anything dark, uncomfortable, or evil. Suburban misery can stand on its own terms as long as the writer uses a sharp pencil, as A. M. Homes elegantly proves. The motivation for this end-of-the-world story is not to explore anything, but to add a bit of grit in what would otherwise be afternoon television.

Had this bucketful of small-minded problems been abandoned at the door, there would be no problem with A View of Concrete's style, which is that of soap opera. I always wanted someone to make a soap about a society completely alien to ours, with people endlessly plagued by small problems completely beyond our comprehension. But then it wouldn't be an apocalyptic story, but a dystopian soapie. As the play stands, without a single good thought, character development or narrative twist, just endless repetition of trivial intrigues, all we have is a linear murmur of quotidian behaviour, but taken excessively seriously.

Family Stories, on the other hand, is knee-deep in things dark, uncomfortable, and evil. Four children play house with dramatic endlessness, as the father tortures the family, the mother tortures the family, and the son or daughter usually kill them both. There are signs throughout the text placing the story in a particular spatio-temporal moment, Belgrade of the mid-1990s: references to political events, parroted newspeak, a particular kind of misogyny. On the other hand, Srbljanović isn’t doing realism, play-within-play: in the oft-quoted stage notes, adults need to play the children, with lines of dialogue that often jump register into complex adult thoughts, and appear, in each new game, with real scars from the previous death. All of the possible readings that Nataša Govedić, Croatian theatre critic, offers could be as valid: on the one hand, the game of house as infernal punishment, with children living through their crimes in infinite repetition, not unlike Tantalus; on the other, the dead adults channelling the trauma of their children, themselves infantilised as a self-protection from social responsibility. The play opens with Nadežda, the retarded child, playing in the sand pit, and closes with her confession/demonstration of killing her parents with an accidentally activated bomb. As she tells the story, she blows up the set and the children, suggesting that the whole play is told from her perspective, as expiation or biography. Her delirious monologue is one part apology, one part farewell note, and one part a “shattering inventory of children’s sins” (Govedić):

I won't ever again . . . sit at the table with dirty hands, dog-ear the pages of books, mix up the newspaper, shout slogans, ask for money, cry when I hurt myself, tear holes in my stockings, fall in love, spit out the soup, take money out of your wallet, scrape my knees, nibble on the marmalade, cheat in school, talk about politics, act sick when Papa belches, demand my inheritance, ask for help, want my own house, plan my future, wish for my own life, have my own opinions, seek progress, happiness, freedom, and peace, grow up, marry, and have children . . .

Family Stories; a Serbian production (?).

Family Stories is the mirror-image of in-yer-face theatre, particularly similar to Sarah Kane’s Cleansed for the way it interweaves domestic cruelty with external violence. However, while in-yer-face counted on numerous devices to destabilise parameters of realism, take God down, from extreme graphic violence to different apocalypse methods, in Srbljanović’s Serbia of the 1990s normality is an atavism the society barely remembers. There is no need to invent complicated catastrophes (they’re out there), are there is no need to potentiate the disruption of self (staying sane is already hard enough). The symmetry is real, though, the connection not merely invented. In-yer-face was born out of the guilty neurosis of Western Europe facing the global collapse of values – which resulted in wars in less stable points, such as ex-Yugoslavia – from the position of relative comfort.

Srbljanovic's play, in a sense, completely ignores volume to focus on the line. Not having to explain, to invent, or to justify the surrounding madness, she merely describes the effects. Instead of solid, tactile bodies of characters, plot, context, issues, all we have are the joints, the points of intersection, of friction. Like a short story that rushes through the immense on a couple of pages by illuminating the points of highest pressure, so Family Stories brings out the brittle, hard edges of a society. This is artifice at its most chiselled splendid (because the line is what art starts with, yet lines don't exist in real life). The transformation of the child mind that Family Stories paints is so extreme that it is near-abstract in contrast to normal life, and it can truly stand for things as abstract as hell.

For that reason, staging Family Stories with less geopolitical solidity may bring it closer to the Australian eye. Staging it as a Beckettian docudrama, which is what Ride On did in Griffin Theatre in Sydney recently, flattens the big questions into a simple shock (as reported from the program notes: “Wake up!”), and alienates the themes rather than bringing them closer. As long as we can see recognisable children on stage reacting to a set of events we do not fully recognise, in a foreign country with a name and language, our safe distance allows us to feel, primarily, compassion for the tortured children. And this is one of the themes, yes, childhood gone wrong. However, Nadežda’s closing repentance suggests that Family Stories is an exorcism of hatred towards one’s flawed parents. This is something immediately recognisable to Srbljanović’s domestic audience, living in a world where all families are unhappy the same way (as she said in an interview, we are a generation “that cannot set their parents on fire, but cannot live with them either”), but perhaps a more complicated thing for an Australian audience to grasp, already working through a barrage of confusing signs.

Family Stories; Csiky Gergely Theatre, Kaposvár, Hungary 2003.

Instead, the simple naturalism of RideOn’s production turns it into an apocalyptic story, with somewhat unfortunate consequences. It is certainly a more successful apocalypse than A View of Concrete, however reluctantly: the self is genuinely transformed. But the non-identification (fortunately tempered by adult cast) appears to shift the Australian reaction towards compassion and pity, not unlike that type of near-pornographic child-abuse fiction that seems to blossom these days (as exemplified by Kevin Jackson’s review). Apocalyptic fiction, of course, is pornographic by default: but there is a difference between the religious pornography of the exploration of the self, and the smug imaginative violence over another being. Just like the early Christians were inflicting eternal suffering on their Roman prosecutors by reading The Apocalypse, Sydneysiders could punish little children in Belgrade.

More curiously, it also becomes an unsettling, Beckettian parody of children’s television, a dark side of normative family happiness as the mass media would want. But the universal darkness of Srbljanović’s text is compacted, tamed. The abstract, again, is lost.

Family Stories; Griffin Stablemates, Sydney, 2008.

Is there a conclusion? A View of Concrete is not that great, and Family Stories not that bad. Both are done a disservice by being staged as relatively straight theatre, because the delivery changes ever so slightly the message. What the latter loses in profundity, the former doesn’t gain in credibility. It is not a failure of craft, not unless we’re viewing direction as something smarter than pottery. Just a failure of Sydney independent theatre to make magic. Which may be read as a religious complaint on my side, but then, where would theatre be without religion?

A View of Concrete. MPower Youth Productions. Written by Gareth Ellis. Directed by Laura Scrivano. With Andrew Bibby, Katie Fitchett, Alexandria Steffensen and Damian Walshe-Howling. Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, Sydney. 5-23 November 2008.

Family Stories: Belgrade. A Ride On Theatre and Griffin Stablemates production. Written by Biljana Srbljanović. Translated by Bojana Novaković. Directors Robert Kennedy and Bojana Novaković. Producers Esti Regos, Joanna Fishman & Bojana Novaković. With Richard Gyoerffy, Tanya Goldberg, Brendan May & Phaedra Nicolaidis. Design Simone Romaniuk. Lighting Verity Hampson. Sound Design Max Lyandvert. Griffin Theatre, Sydney. 18 October – 8 November 2008.

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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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The Masque of the Red Death

Not entirely successful, The Masque of the Red Death stands unsure between presentation and representation, self-awareness and not, always doing things a tad bit too literally. Its starting and ending point is Edgar Allan Poe's short story of one continuous party, closed off from the society ravaged by plague. This is a powerful trope, used since Boccaccio, at the bottom of it our unease about antisocial activities of all kinds, a desire to punish the autonomous outcasts, the death wish behind certain forms of transgressive hedonism; and then the tantalising image of total social breakdown. It is so simple, so resonant, that anything could have been made out of it. Instead, this production doesn't move further than square two. The program notes give it all away: “Daniel Schlusser […] told me about a task he had once set a group of actors: create the last piece of theatre allowed by a government before theatre is entirely banned in the land.” From here to pre-plague hedonism, and from Poe to the free-rolling funfair of a performance, are two very small steps.

The other problem is that Masque swings between describing the last party, and being the party, backing-and-forthing in its interaction with the audience in a way that ultimately isn't very thought-through. The dramatic structure is upheld by the narrative frame of the story, used to insert a range of Poe's writing, most of it in a purely declamatory fashion. The representational middle, a series of one- or two-person acts, draws on the vaudeville more than it tries to explore this imaginary aristocratic party, which in itself would not be a sin had the visual and spiritual clichés of vaudeville not been endlessly over-exploited on every kind of Melbourne stage already. Although the performer-spectator relationship is explored in all sorts of ways: performers sitting in the stalls, the audience sitting on stage, both dispersing into small groups and withdrawing into little rooms; it never feels like there is any higher purpose to these explorations of form than to try another trick. In the end, the two parts are collated quite safely, and our palates should be predictably satisfied: mindless amusement boxed into a safe experience, book-ended by some sense of purpose, explanation.

In certain moments, I had real hope that the performance was leading somewhere other than to the anticipated punishment of privileged antisociability. There appeared to be a slow build-up of acts, performed apparently for us, of greater and more intense transgression: from the bizarre, complexly disturbing image of a girl squatting on a skateboard, to the deliciously trash version of Raven as smut, to the full frontal nudity of a cross-dressing madame Butterfly. And yet, despite these upswings of visual creativity, most of the imagery was intellectually shallow, not doing much more than presenting commonplaces: violence on semi-naked women, glittery cross-dressing, unneeded accents. It was also visually misconceived: with gypsy fortune tellers, clowns and dancers, it was more of a romanticized village fair than the last supper of the medieval condemned. Which, again, would not be a sin had it not been the thousandth time this decade that a faux-Slavic accent was donned by a gypsy fortune teller on Melbourne stage.

The performances are passionate across the board, with each performer given a moment of one-act glory, and this ultimately makes The Masque of the Red Death a rather enjoyable experience. Much more enjoyable to witness, I may add, than think about later. However, perhaps due to the looseness of the direction, one never forgets that one is watching a student production, in serious discrepancy with last year's VCA shows, one of which, YES, could later easily get re-staged at fortyfivedownstairs.

I like tropes, I like clichés, I like common places. I believe in the power of fairy tales, of myths, of rituals. There is intrigue in the commonality of the simple ideas that order human existence across time and space. I would like to see them explored in ways more intelligent that simple declamation of poetry masquerading as provocation.

The Masque of the Red Death. Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by John Bolton. Music: Jo Laing. Set design: Jeminah Reidy. Costumes: Jane Noonan. Lighting design: Kimberly Kwa. Sound design: Timothy Bright. Victorian College of the Arts Company 2008 Graduating Performance. Space 28, Dodds St, Southbank, 29 Oct – 7 Nov.

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Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris; with regret

La Mama and Parnassus’ Den Productions present: Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris. Written by Shaun Charles. Directed by Dave Letch. Performed by Daniel Agapiou, Melanie Berry, Cat Commander, Joshua Hewitt, Gina Morley and Gus Murray. Production designed by Christina Logan-Bell. Lighting designed by Christopher Tollefson. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton. June 4 – June 21. Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 5pm. 2pm matinees on Saturdays June 7 & 21. Tickets: $20/$10. Bookings: 9347 6142.

A version of this review was published online on vibewire.net.

It is much harder to criticize a production built from scratch, than a flawed production of an established text: the reasons for failure are harder to pinpoint. Was it the line or the delivery, the character or the costume, the tone or the set? Moreover, is it unredeemably bland, or just short of decent?

Set during the last few days before the world's certain end, Rio Saki & Other Falling Debris follows six characters as they, rather predictably, go mad, buy drugs, look for someone to die with, see angels, betray and love and need each other. And from the first to the last moment of the play, it is standing right next to line, and refusing to cross.

The whole point of apocalypse stories is wider-scheme revenge, fuelled by our self-righteous moral high ground. We observe shallow, hollow people around us, as they follow trends, send text messages, order take-away, mull over the new mobile phone to buy, betray higher ideals, we despite this perceived lack of involvement with great ideas, with life itself. And we yearn to see them faced with questions of life and death. We want them shaken out of their tepid complacency. We want them a bit more human. We want to know what they would be like.

Tragically, I am quite positive they would behave like the characters in Rio Saki: get absorbed in petty disputes, commit small acts of civil disobedience, have hysterical fits of fear, and endlessly describe their hopes for a glorious death. Unlike in better end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stories, from Solaris through Apocalypse Now or Mercury Fur, they would not do crazy and significant things that would reveal higher laws of human nature. They would stay bland, uncreative and unreflexive right until the end. But if this is a compliment, it is a rather weak one. In a good fictional end of the world, there should be absolutely disgusting human behaviour, extremely lateral emotional logic, unexpected conclusions, traumas distorting the story and memory in short circuits, cathartic regret.

Originally, I had posted a photo-moment from the play. Having been supplied with this sort of photography since, however, I have decided to use Parnassus' Den Productions' preferred publicity images instead. They explain the 'television' part better than words ever could.

Rio Saki is much too gentle on its characters, and much too easy-going with the plot, to offer catharsis. This one is a mild, suburban apocalypse. Right until the end, everyone was well-groomed, tall and slim, tidy, rather television-looking. Nobody reached the bottom. The line of quotidian, self-interested decency was never crossed. It was the apocalypse in a soapie world. And yet, at every moment I had hope: I was waiting until the very end to give it up.

Shaun Charles’s is competent writing, well-paced and measured, yet at the end one looks back and realises that it went nowhere. The Rio Saki from the title is a symbol that never quite becomes the key to the play; of the many relationships that crack at the start, not one is significantly transformed by the end, and no personal journeys are completed either; even the world ends just as predicted. Paradoxically, the chief reason for this, apart from the refusal to torture characters, seems to be the desire to end the play in a measured and balanced way, give it a sense of closure and a calm end to rest on. As a result, everyone's journey ends before any real transformation has a chance to happen.

Could this have been compensated by braver acting or directing is the last thing that bothers me. Cat Commander is fine in her (admittedly easy) role of the deranged, perpetually screaming Charlotte, and Joshua Hewitt keeps the spirits up at the other end of the play as the drug-obsessed Louis. The rest are lukewarm and more than a bit television; but then, so are their characters. The main apocalypse devices end up being the set (clever, dirty and cluttered), and the excellent soundtrack (moody and full of feelin’).

There is a strong tendency in Australian writing to stay on the surface without approaching satire, keep understated minimalism without finding profundity, and genuinely shelter characters and plot from great events. To write an apocalypse story in that spirit, frankly, may be stretching the genre a bit far.

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