Tag Archives: women

The Conversation: Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Two performance artists in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) – the UK’s Bryony Kimmings and American Adrienne Truscott – have a certain flavour of humour: it’s the knowing, self-deprecating humour of the culturally dispossessed, of survivors and victims. And yes, they’re both women.

Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show about rape. In it, Truscott counters the stated prerogative of male comedians to tell rape jokes with a confronting routine in which she relentlessly does the same.

Her wit spares neither them, nor hip-hop artists rapping about date rape, nor Republican politicians expounding on “legitimate rape”, nor men in the audience.

Truscott also gets to explain why animal analogies are inadequate through progeny-eating gerbils. It is a bracing, uncomfortable, rewarding show. Is it funny, though? That depends on how you look at it.

The topic of “women in comedy” is endlessly controversial. Where are the women? Are there enough of them? Are women even funny?

The latter is apparently such a valid question that it has been regularly asked, with a straight face, by The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and possibly every other major media publication.

British-American author Christopher Hitchens famously stated in Vanity Fair in 2007: they are not. Those that were funny, he conceded, were mostly “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” therefore practically men themselves.

Coming to this question from a performance studies viewpoint – as opposed to being an expert in stand-up comedy like Hitchens – the question seems almost otherworldly. Let me explain.

Origins of performance art

In the second half of the 20th century, artists’ interest in real time, real space, real human bodies, real human presence and real human experience resulted in the development of what we call “performance art”: art inextricably linked to the artist physically producing it.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

The practice originated in the visual arts scene of 1950s and 1960s America. In Europe, slightly later, it became known simply as “performance”, while in the UK, once it reached theatre artists in the 1980s and 1990s, it became known as “live art” (from art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal history of performance art).

Performance art encompasses a wide range of practices but the two people that defined the term, almost to the point of cliche, are Japanese artist Yoko Ono and Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović. In the 1960s and 1970s, they let the presence of their own body make the artistic statement: Ono letting the spectators cut up her clothing in Cut Piece (1965); Ono and Lennon protesting the Vietnam War in a bed-in (1969); Abramović letting gallery visitors use various sharp objects, knives and a gun on her body in Rhythm 0 (1974); or leaning into a bow and arrow in Rest Energy (1980).

Performance art allowed feminist female artists to effectively challenge that standard object of representation in art – the female body. A living, breathing, talking, reacting woman could subvert, challenge, deconstruct the idealised notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. She could challenge the audience with her realness, and raise such taboo issues as menstruation, ageing, or sexual identity. The history of female art and the history of performance art are inextricably intertwined.

The vocabulary of performance developed by female artists emphasised solo performance, a strong element of autobiography or personal experience, veiled social critique, and interaction with the audience. Sort of like comedy, you see, apart from not being funny.

Except that it often is. It is no wonder that many women in this year’s MICF are performance artists, not career comediennes – the impulse behind these two forms is similar, and so is their flavour of humour. As Bryony Kimmings said last year in the London Evening Standard:

Women are funnier because we suffer more.

Consider Marina Abramović’s video work, in which she manically brushes her hair for 50 minutes, repeating the titular phrase, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful”. If you don’t hear the sarcasm, you’re missing the point of the work. It is the same flavour of barbed sarcasm that Adrienne Truscott uses when she opens her comedy show with a bona fide rape joke, and stands in front of us naked from the waist down.

The vulnerability of their bodies is an angry statement, but this angry vulnerability is almost defining of women’s life. It does not preclude humour.

Bryony Kimmings

This strategy of escalating the sexualisation of the female body until it is funny also appears in Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at MICF where she performs a long interpretive dance sequence that mimics sexual intercourse.

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Sex Idiot is an autobiographical journey through Kimmings’ relationship history while she is trying to inform previous partners of her positive STI test. It has that familiar emotional tone of self-deprecation, melancholy and wise acceptance – again, tone less akin to a mating call than to cotton-picking songs of American slaves.

It is also funny, outrageously so. But it is an emotionally complex humour: as Kimmings creates ever more hilarious performance artworks to honour each one of her previous relationships, we laugh at her disappointments, her poor choices, her wasted opportunities, her misapplied bravado. It is a journey that ends rewardingly, in rich introspection.


But the most extraordinary feminist performance currently showing in Melbourne is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, also created by Kimmings. Not officially a part of the Comedy Festival, but showing at Theatre Works as part of Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

It is a joint endeavour between Kimmings and her 11-year-old niece Taylor, in which they try to develop an appropriate role-model for tween girls. The show is emotionally hard-hitting in unexpected ways. It juxtaposes Taylor’s innocent preteen imagination with Kimmings’ adult protectiveness and cynicism, and it is sometimes very funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Nothing like a dry treatise in sexualisation of children, it left everyone in the audience sobbing quite unashamedly. It is a powerful example of how the emotional nuance of feminist performance can deliver a deeply felt social analysis.

Australian academic Germaine Greer famously accused female artists of exhibitionism and narcissism. This is not so different from accusing women comics of only talking about vaginas and men. Vanity Fair may be right to say that, until very recently, all female comedy could be divided into two camps: self-deprecating or men-hating. But, to some extent, this should be a self-resolving problem.

As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminism is inextricably related to telling stories women can recognise as being about themselves.

When talking about rape, promiscuous women and the sexualisation of children stops being a rebellious act, feminist performance will naturally move on.


Bryony Kimmings Sex Idiot runs until April 5.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model runs until April 6.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! runs until April 20.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 3 April 2014, and is here reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence, more for my own archival purposes than anything else.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Dance Massive 05: More or Less Monstrous (reviewed: Atlanta Eke’s Monster Body)

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts


But once an innovation happens, it loses its singularity in iteration. It thus cannot be appraised simply in the macho, military terms of ‘revolution,’ ‘innovation’ or ‘shock’: it becomes essayistic, formalist, a tool in a toolbox. But Monster Body is a carefully conceptualised and executed work, and loses nothing when the shock wears off. Instead, it provokes more thought, with greater clarity.

It is hard to see Monster Body without having first received warnings about its nudity, urination and feminism. On the surface, it is a confronting piece: Eke, swirling a hula hoop, greets us wearing nothing but a grotesque dinosaur mask. A series of classical ballet battements follows, morphing into rather more ordinary walking and crouching movements, accompanied by synchronised growls and shrieks. In the piece’s most notorious segment, Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, that Trojan Horse of post-feminist self-expression, blares as Eke placidly pees while standing upright, then rolls on the same patch of floor in gently erotic poses.

Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts

However, the piece is neither overtly angry nor in-yer-face combative. Eke maintains dispassionate focus: the ambient lighting never creates separation between audience and stage, and the work seems to ask us to observe and judge, rather than rise up in arms. Notice, for example, how much more monstrous than the mask is Eke’s naked body—even though it is both a culturally docile (depilated in all the right places) and aesthetically ‘successful’ (young, toned, thin) body. We are accustomed to seeing rubber animal faces more than epithet-less nudity. Notice how unpleasant it is to watch a woman growl: inarticulate sounds and purposeless body movements need not be particularly extreme to cross a boundary of what a healthy woman may do with herself. The residue of the spectre of hysteria still lurks in our minds. Observe how very easy it is for a female human to appear monstrous, as if it has only been partially digested by our civilization. And when a man in a hazmat suit appears to clean the floor or hand Eke a towel, observe how his very presence upsets the all-female stage, how ineffably strange it is to see this man neither represent, uphold nor fight for any kind of patriarchy.

Echoes of other artists appear reduced to bare essence. Eke and another female performer fondle each other’s bodies with a pair of rubber hands on long poles: this is Pina Bausch, but gentle, a moment that relies on our body memory of uninvited hands sliding down our calves for its emotional impact. Or, Eke fills her body stocking with pink water balloons, posing in her new, distorted figure, half-undressing and ending up with the stocking knotted into a bundle on her back, hunched under a heavy load of blubbery things that look, for all intents and purposes, like a pile of teats, or breast implants. The image echoes a whole canon of female disfiguration in art (I thought of Nagi Noda’s Poodle Fitness) as well as that of the misadventures of plastic surgery and of certain kinds of pornography, but it simply asks us consider what a human might look like once it has more breasts than limbs.

Monster Body, Atlanta Eke
photo Rachel Roberts

And then, in a musical intermezzo to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”, hip-hop empowerment, complete with an aggressive, ultra-sexualised choreography, is performed by an ensemble of variously-shaped girls, their nakedness only made starker by their running footwear and black bags on their heads. Drawing a link between the objectification and torture of people inside and outside of Abu Ghraib has already been made, with similar means, and perhaps more clarity, by Post in Gifted and Talented), but Eke emphasises the vulnerability of these well-performing bodies, bodies that participate in their nominal liberation. Suddenly, Beyonce’s form of bravado displays exactly the weakness it is designed to hide. The painful powerlessness of this posturing is revealed by the sheer effort it requires, by the way it poorly fits a naked body, stripped of the armour of a hyper-sexualised costume.

As much as I tried, and despite everything I have read about it, I failed to see much of an all-encompassing exploration of human objectification in Monster Body. It seemed so clearly to draw a narrative arc of feminine non-liberation in present time, from the restrictive culturally condoned vulnerability of Britney to the restrictive culturally condoned strength of Beyonce. Its obvious interest in audience as a meaningful half of the show also seemed to have fallen by the wayside, leaving a palpable void. However, as an essay on the physical restrictions of being a woman today, and a deeply thought-through one, it was very intellectually engaging. Shocking it wasn’t, but I suspect that was not its goal, either.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Monster Body, choreographer, performer Atlanta Eke, performers Amanda Betlehem, Tim Birnie, Tessa Broadby, Ashlea English, Sarah Ling; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 22-24;http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

Tagged , , , , ,

Dance Massive 01: suggestive formalism (reviewed: Natalie Abbott’s Physical Fractals)

PHYSICAL FRACTALS presented by Arts House & Natalie Abbott
Natalie Abbott, Sarah Aitken, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes


The tenuous ‘truth’ of a dance work is so often buried somewhere between movement and mood, that we all, I would say, need the ability to let our minds wander over the physical performance, if we are to get to its core.

Postmodernism has brought narrative, realism and politics back into dance, but not evenly so. In particular, there is a strand of Australian dance that has furiously resisted all figuration, remained staunchly formalist and—I mean this without reprimand—has privileged mood and atmosphere over concept and narrative. Physical Fractals, the first long-form work by young choreographer Natalie Abbott, sits squarely within this tradition. The work examines how a cross-interference of media stimuli—sound, light and movement—can create a meaningful audience experience. It is deeply formalist in intent, and I am somewhat glad I entered the auditorium without knowing this.

Two young female dancers, Abbott herself and Sarah Aitken, dressed in loose, comfortable black, perform repetitious sequences of simple gestures, gradually drawing intersecting lines within the circular stage. Their movements are uncomplicated but heavy, Haka-like—wide stomping backwards, dangling arms, weighted jumping, running, heavy falling of bodies—with strong, pendular shifts of weight. The choreography emphasises the weightiness of these two (quite lithe) bodies, and creates an effect of empathetic physical exhaustion in the audience, particularly as we watch Abbott and Aitken repeatedly crash to the ground, in the final sequence. Meanwhile, their thumps and stomps are looped, magnified and sent swirling back, building into a powerful echo, as if the two women are single-handedly raising a storm. At one point, the dancers swing microphones on their cords, building a symphony of static. The effect is hypnotic but deep: the heaviness of the performance lodges itself deeply in one’s body.

Sarah Aitken, Natalie Abbott, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

At its best, Physical Fractals makes us feel the sheer force of these simple movements on the dancers’ bodies. Abbott seems to emphasise weight not purely for sonic effect: repetition of falling, faltering and stooping builds a narrative of physical strain and resilience. It could be easily read as a feminist choreography, but equally as a humanist one (female body has limited significance here). Its dancing bodies are grounded, weighted, imperfectly synced, injurable, far from the superhero flying automata that one still sees. I was reminded acutely of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s early work, particularly Rosas Dans Rosas and Bartók, which wove the same strands of repetition, simple gestures and femininity into something formalist, yet humbly political and life affirming. (There was also an echo to her later work, which explores darkness, movement and silence within similar parameters.) But I kept waiting in vain for this work to use its magnificently realised means towards some higher goal.

Physical Fractals continuously operated on the same plane, neither submerging us under its powerful storm into a meditative enlightenment, nor raising us to a bird’s eye realisation of higher purpose. I could not detect a fractal pattern (a fractal is self-similar, presenting the same complexity of build at different scales: think cauliflower or snowflake). I was waiting for a minimum of philosophical framework, something to gently give meaning to the genuine empathy the work was creating, something between awe and care; I was waiting for Abbott to utilise the powerful spell she had cast on us. It never came, and the work is weaker for its unfulfilled potential than it would have been had it ventured a smaller stake.

For the pure affective stamp it leaves, Physical Fractals is a formally successful work, and Abbott a sensitive and intelligent choreographer. Just as de Keersmaeker’s formalist work created political resonances she had not necessarily had in mind, so was I able to enjoy an interior dialogue about strength, resilience, mysticism and the fourth wave of feminism while hypnotised by this fine choreography. This is not, and cannot be wrong: the figurative emptiness at the heart of contemporary dance requires a suggestible viewer. I cannot escape the impression, however, that I enjoyed Physical Fractals for the wrong and unexpected reasons—against the grain of the author’s intent.

Dance Massive: Physical Fractals, choreographer, director, performer Natalie Abbott, collaborator Rebecca Jensen, performer Sarah Aitken, live sound design Daniel Arnot, dramaturg Matthew Day, lighting Govin Ruben; Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12-16; http://dancemassive.com.au/

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

Tagged , ,

Das Weiße Band

Either I am choosing my friends more and more wisely, or men are just getting better in general, but each year more and more of my male friends are making explicit statements against violence against women.

Thank you so much for that. It is some kind of manifest sign that the ratio of violent men in my life is decreasing. It may seem like an abstract thing to some of you, but, when you’re a woman, it’s often very real.


filmic, theatrical polyphony (reviewed: Katie Mitchell’s Fräulein Julie for the Schaubühne, Berlin)


Tilman Strauss, Jule Böwe, Fräulein Julie. Photo Stephen Cummiskey.

We theatre audiences have by now seen hundreds of cameras on stage, following actors, projecting detail onto large screens, adding fleshy detail to the clean, distant clockwork of well-rehearsed theatre. If theatre is so often employed as metaphor, it is because the well-oiled automatism of stage business so naturally projects a deathly, telescopic inevitability. The reason the camera is there—was there, before it became a cliché—was perhaps to simultaneously remind us of the mortality of everyone and everything on stage, and aestheticise it further, beyond touch. The intimacy of zoom and the alienation of the screen. If theatre is a metaphor for society, then video certainly stands for exploitation.

Jule Böwe. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Katie Mitchell’s video-heavy Fräulein Julie revolves around all these meanings, but to a nobler purpose. In a perfect copy of a 19th century house, dressed in era-appropriate costumes, followed by five cameras and an army of technicians, the actors perform not so much theatre as a live film, in meticulously recorded fragments, which only come together into a meaningful whole on the large central screen. Sound is recorded on stage, but separately: a cellist for the music, a table crammed with quotidian objects is a simple sound desk for incidental sounds, recording booths side-stage for voice. A simple meat-preparing scene splices live footage of two actors performing simultaneously in different corners of the set: one for the face, another for the hands; the clattering of pots comes from the sound desk—and so it continues for 85 minutes. The stage is an unrelenting symphony of small gestures, a dizzying machine.

The film, contrastingly, is slow, atmospheric with diffuse lighting and mellow music. It could easily be Bergman, or Sally Potter—or a BBC costume drama. Only a few lines of Strindberg’s original dialogue remain, in the corners of our attention. We overhear Jean and Julie’s aggressive flirtation together with Kristin, as she walks in and out of the kitchen, doing her chores, helping Jean, becoming aware, then slowly overcome by anxiety.

Tilman Strauss. Photo Stephen Cummiskey.

The weakest in the erotic triangle, economically and socially disadvantaged, mute and inexpressive, Kristin remains a silent observer throughout the play—but Mitchell generously makes room for her subjectivity. Kristin’s interior monologue—fragments of Inger Christensen’s incantatory poetry—drowns out Strindberg’s battle of the sexes. Kristin’s inner world is brittle but wild, un-intellectual but given to great poetic beauty. Without resorting to excess (hysteria, violence, death), Mitchell sympathetically portrays the powerlessness of a servant woman within patriarchy. The combination of on-stage fret and on-screen disquietude, of relentless physical work and mute anxiety, builds into an immensely compelling portrait of a human being crushed by societal forces. Kristin is oppressed through her work, her marriage, her sex, her lack of education, her inability to react or even critically analyse the events. The tension is not just between theatre and cinema as forms—but between the social and the psychological landscape of the work.

Mitchell’s interpretation is almost too easily analysable: faithful to Strindberg’s attention to socio-economic detail, offering a feminist-Marxist critique via the tried-and-tested assortment of distanciating tools. But the predictability of a thoroughly coherent dramaturgy is countered by the mesmerising, sensuous polyphony of a work unfolding, like a madrigal, on two planes simultaneously: one social realist, another experimental. The overall effect is delicate and masterful, political and poetic, formalist but passionate. A treat.

Fräulein Julie, after August Strindberg, adaptation Katie Mitchell, direction Katie Mitchell, Leo Warner, translation, performers Jule Böwe, Luise Wolfram, Tilman Strauß, dramaturgy Maja Zade; Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin, in repertoire.

First published in RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012, web e-dition .

Tagged , , ,

Degrees of risk (Reviewed: Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough; Jochen Roller & Saar Magal’s Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do)

Leisa Shelton in Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, Fragment31. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.


Fragment31’s Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve performance is a theatrical rendition of Anne Carson’s poem of the same title, which turns the poet into a third-person Deneuve, and narrates her infatuation with a female student through the doubly ironic prism of cinema and classical references. What would Socrates say, she wonders, her words laced with mature, weary detachment. Deneuve, the cinematic Barbie doll, effortlessly blank, is inserted in the place of a complex self. (In >A href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2006/dec/30/film”>The Guardian, December 30, 2006, Germaine Greer remarked that so devoid of personality have Deneuve’s roles been, that she cannot recall a single line any of her characters ever uttered.)

Fragment31 play with the representation of the fractured desiring self by simulating film. Shelton/Carson/Deneuve walks to the Metro; receives a phone call in her office; waits in a hotel room. Each scene is sculpted in filmic detail, each physically and narratively disconnected from the other, each floating as an island of naturalistic imagery in the mangle of props and wires of the Meat Market stage space. Sound, light, set, actors and musician, and designers, onstage too, come together in fitful fragments—the coalescing of the desiring, decentred self into one sharpened and fuelled by love. Even the narrator, Carson/Deneuve, is played by two actors: Leisa Shelton for body, Luke Mullins for voice. It is an attempt to discipline desire with a muffle of irony, dissimulation. But irony is not enough to stop infatuation; self-knowledge does not mandate control. Desire shows through. The poem crackles; the stage version, murkier and not as focused, less so.

Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do. Photo: Friedemann Simon.

If in the first work irony is employed as the girdle of trauma, to keep the fractured self in one piece, in the next work irony is a safe, fenced pathway to the exploration of trauma. Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is Israeli choreographer Saar Magal’s answer to a question: whether to make a work about the Holocaust with friend German Jochen Roller or, rather, not about the Holocaust at all, but third generation Israelis and Germans.

It opens with a discussion over the order of epithets—which layer of identity comes first? They agree: German Jew, black Jewish German, even gay German black Jew; but, says Magal, “we’re not going to talk about Palestine.” Magal and Roller change clothes, from the yellow of the Star of David to the brown of the SS uniform, and back. They play Holocaust testimonies on tape. They enact a series of iconic WWII photos: Magal collapsing into Roller’s arms, Roller shooting Magal, vice versa. Magal says, “This man stole a book from a Tel Aviv bookshop!” And Roller recites, “I don’t remember. Everyone was doing it. I was simply there.”

We are asked to take our shoes off, walk, sit and, later, to get up. We don’t understand. “Aufstehen!” shouts Roller. Some of us are randomly marked out, and one person pulled out of the crowd, to dance briefly with Magal, and then sent back. The show creates small moments of terror: we are dislodged from our audience complacency, but nothing bad ever happens, because it’s not that kind of show.

Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do is a catalogue of images enacted, repeated, but only as traces. It assumes a traumatised audience, for which every hint will be a trigger of memory. But, remarkably, it is a work that refuses to create false memories. It tests recognition; it has exactly as much content as the audience brings to it. It is up to each person to see genocide in the stage imagery, hear the Nuremberg Trials in the dialogue. The piece gently probes. How much do we still remember? What does it mean to us? What does it do to us?

In Australia (as opposed to Germany or Israel), the answer is not much. There were some walk-outs, which I cannot imagine happening at a Holocaust tear-jerker (for reasons of decorum). But for those to whom it meant something, Magal and Roller created a tasteful, careful little memorial space, in which a past event was reconnected to the present, and the relationship between the two weighed up.

One could say that the risks in Basically… never felt sufficiently dangerous, the stakes never high enough to justify the pussyfooting (one German critic called it “politically correct”). The love woes of Deneuve/Carson are saturated with much greater danger, despite the ironic title. However, Basically… uses irony differently, as a way of coming closer to something unspeakable, rather than pulling away from it. If traumatic desire is a sore one still wants to pick, the Holocaust is a trauma of a completely other kind, one to tiptoe around carefully, holding hands.

Fragment31, Irony is Not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve, creators, performers Luke Mullins, Leisa Shelton, music Jethro Woodward, set Anna Cordingly, lighting Jen Hector; Nov 16-20; Basically I Don’t But Actually I Do, creators, performers Jochen Roller, Saar Magal, lighting Marek Lamprecht, soundtrack Paul Ratzel; Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Nov 24-27, 2010

First published in RealTime, issue #101, Feb-March 2011, pg. 38.

Tagged , , , , ,

Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker. Photo: Heidrun Löhr, courtesy Sydney Opera House.


Faker addresses us, the audience, as an autobiographical, even confessional work, but it is impossible to discuss it as such — once it enters stage space and stage time, ‘Gideon Obarzanek’ stands for Gideon Obarzanek, performing a sitting that stands for sitting, at a desk standing for a desk. It would be dramaturgically and critically naive to review ad hominem: this review can only talk about a staged character, ‘Gideon Obarzanek,’ not the person off-stage; and about the stage letter he receives from a theatrical pupil. The question of the percentage of ‘reality’ involved is, in this case, at the very least dumb, and at the very worst unethical.

The dramatic structure has ‘Obarzanek’ alternating between two activities: first, he reads out a letter sent to him by a young dancer, clearly smitten by ‘Obarzanek,’ who initiates a collaboration, hoping that he will “bring out the fabulous” in her, and then finds herself feeling progressively more vulnerable, let down, and growing increasingly more disappointed, hostile. The voice of the letter sounds clear notes of adoration, insecurity, need to be liked and desire to please, and although it is said to belong to a woman, it could easily belong to a young man. Asked to perform something she has not done before (“this task was designed in a way that I could only fail”), her insecurity starts coalescing into a perception of betrayal: “I stood there, humiliated.”

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , ,

RW: The Dollhouse

The Doll’s House

I have seen two versions of this play just recently: Anja Maksić’s LUTKINA KUĆA/ZMIJA MLADOŽENJA (Doll’s House / Viper Groom) at Eurokaz in 2008 (here’s the account), and Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubuehne production (called NORA) on DVD in 2010. I am not unusual in that. Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House – which I may occasionally refer to as ‘Nora’ in this text, because that is its officially unofficial name in Europe – is the most performed play in the world. Even in Australia, a place fairly meagrely serviced with theatre by any global measure, there are doll’s houses springing up at universities, at Fringe time, at arts festivals (e.g. Mabou Mines’ DOLLHOUSE at Brisbane Festival 2006). This is a play staged for show, not for servicing the text. There is hardly anyone left today who doesn’t know this play, doesn’t know that Nora Helmer is the childlike wifey of a Norwegian banker Torvald, doesn’t know that she ends the play by slamming the door that leads out of her marriage, doesn’t know that this was a scandal on stage when it premiered. The Doll’s House is a play with a cultural significance that goes far beyond its pure literary value, and for this reason the text itself is distinctly unimportant to the productions of this play. The audience is not here for the plot. We know the play well. We are here for style. We are here to see how this particular creative team will grapple with the conundrum that is this text. We are here to see how she will solve the technical problems particular to the play (the changed condition of women, which largely neutralises the weight of the ending), and how she will claim her space in a very crowded arena of interpreters.

This is our ground zero, in the discussion of this work. This is a play that a director chooses in order to make a personal statement – not in order to honour the playwright. Western culture has already done that.

Everyone who is anyone seemed to be there at the opening of Daniel Schlusser’s THE DOLLHOUSE, a semi-revival of the work he made in late 2007 with VCA acting students (although ‘on’ them might be a better choice of words, the way choreography is done ‘on’ bodies). It was a praised work then, and a pocket-sized one on top. It was also the first work Schlusser had done in Melbourne in a long time, having come back from Germany not long ago, and the first of a series that would shake Melbourne’s theatre theatre scene up. From it followed: LIFE IS A DREAM in 2008, revived in 2010, THE ZOMBIE STATE in 2008, PEER GYNT and POET NO. 7 in 2009, THE HOLLOW in 2010, and MACBETH just recently, but at Monash (raise hands ye who have seen it, and tell us what it was like).

Schlusser has attracted a devout following in these years*. There are very few theatre theatre directors in this town that could be classified as architects, as opposed to construction workers or builders. Apart from Schlusser, and by-now-expat Kosky, only Liminal Theatre’s Sitarenos and Draffin, and to some extent Marcel Dorney and Jenny Kemp (who use original text) come to mind**.

To some extent, there isn’t enough straight theatre in this country for radical interpretations to get desirable (on which I wrote here), and to an extent we are lacking the deep understanding of classical texts, their context, their impact, their importance, their critiques, their successors, in order to be able to read radical interpretations. We are all lacking this knowledge: the directors, the audiences, the critics.

Schlusser’s work, however, has gained traction despite its hermeneutic complexity, because he has made it a hallmark of his style to make works on at least two, sometimes six or more, levels. Almost every work of his I have seen has had the ability to function both as an extremely intelligent deconstruction of a canonical text, and a sort of freeform, chaotic stage event that one can appreciate, in a way similar to how Forced Entertainment’s BLOODY MESS could be appreciated, without having even the most general idea of how it related to any text at all. His version of Calderon’s Life is a Dream was, on the surface, a story of six siblings trapped in a basement their entire life, reminiscent of that year’s paramount tabloid story, who make up power games to fight boredom. His version of Ibsen’s troll fantasia Peer Gynt was a bogan wedding rehearsal, followed by a boozy house party. If you knew the text, each one of these productions was an absolute feast of intertextuality, with classic quotes reduced to non-verbal detail (Peer Gynt playing with some onions in the corner of the stage for about five seconds), but if you didn’t, you still felt embraced by the event. A certain kind of obscure, unfriendly hermeneuticism which is so often a quality of postmodernist theatre direction was here annulled.

But there are deeper qualities to Schlusser’s method. While turning Peer Gynt into a bogan party comes with a series of beneficial effects – shortening and rephrasing the text, finding surprising contemporary cultural equivalents for what are often alienatingly different circumstances of the original text – these are effects that are, on their own, enough to gain an Australian director the label ‘auteur’, and their importance might be highly overstated.

More interestingly, reducing the time of the work means reducing the entire play to a single situation, and this has allowed Schlusser to make some extraordinary statements about the source texts, far beyond a simple transposition. To place Calderon’s text into a basement of wild, unsocialised children is to locate the Baroque European court at the very extreme of incestuous, isolated idleness. Similarly, his PEER GYNT shed the frills – the ships, the trolls, the pyramids, the asylum – to become a story of a very immature little boy, fed the lines of his life by his mum and his girlfriend, at a party where nothing anyone does can really matter. It re-played the grand drama of the original play as soap-operatic melodrama, and found emotional hollowness in every utterance kept on stage. This movement semiotically sideways is in Schlusser’s work always surprising, but meticulously judged.

A consequence of this move sideways is that the text habitually stops being the vessel of truth, both of life generally, and of the true meaning of the performance, and turns into a voiced delusion: a game played by basement-bound children in LIFE IS A DREAM, or an invented adventure of a boy nobody is taking seriously in PEER GYNT. It is entirely legitimate to appreciate Schlusser’s productions as illustrations of how we use fiction to give grandeur, drama, height, to the banality of our reality.

Then there is the extraordinary quality to the performances he elicits. Schlusser is, like no other director I know, capable of stopping the actors from acting, and settling them into a long-lasting low-performativity timbre, in which they are indistinguishable from stage hands (but there are also never any stage hands here – everyone is part of the show). This has made the entire PEER GYNT, and large stretches of his other shows, look like improvisation, or the pre-dramatic beginning – you know those few minutes at the very beginning of a certain kind of performance, in which the actors arrive, fumble about, speak to each other in a low voice, settling into the stage? – of a dramatic performance. This kind of performance creates a constant, durational, low-intensity buzz, and is interesting to watch the way a street corner is interesting to watch. The energy of the stage swells and subsides, pockets of intensity build in corners, gigantic storms occasionally sweep the entire space, and sometimes the action is as dispersed as the shaking of leaves on a tree. It lends itself to being observed as rhythm, or patterns of energy, and is accessible through all sorts of swarmy, crowdy and weathery metaphors. Since everything important happens as detail, sometimes inaudible conversation, one becomes engrossed, and focused in a way that is really rare in our contemporary world. This is not TV or cinema focus, and not really a theatre kind of focus either. Rather, an anthropological, ethnographic, fieldwork sort of focus.

I have never found time to write a reflection on Schlusser’s last big work, a version of Agatha Christie’s THE HOLLOW. I will have to make a longish aside for it here, because that work showed a real evolution in these very qualities. Schlusser condensed the entire crime, investigation and revealing of the murderer to a single, long garden party, in which everything that happens in Christie’s crime happened, in a linear fashion, one event after another, on a large large stage, with a large large cast. Apart from showing the entirely non-tragic, inevitable mechanics of Agatha Christie’s world – an interesting intervention into the standard dramatic composition of her oeuvre – it was the first time that anthropology came to my mind as an apt metaphor for Schlusser’s poetics. The killing of John Christow was presented on this stage with an engaged disinterest comparable to the way the killing of an antelope would be depicted in a nature documentary. But it seemed that Schlusser was starting to play with re-introducing dramatic performance and stage effects into his weathery work, to exciting effect; and the slippage between levels of unreality had by now assumed a baroque complexity.

Another thing worth noting before we continue is that Schlusser’s large-cast works have a poetics distinct from his small-cast works. Whether this is intentional or not I am not sure. The height of performativity differs, and with it the entire experience. In all of his productions so far, Schlusser allows his performers to play with the original text, to chew on it and spit it out at times. The effect is often that of play-acting, sometimes that of voicing a role only semi-consciously. However, the rule of thumb has been, the smaller the cast, the longer and more weighty the text. Interestingly, it is as if Schlusser doesn’t trust a small swarm to hold the audience’s attention as well as a large swarm can. Whatever the reason, large-cast performances hold all of the qualities I have been discussing better: they are less theatrical theatrical, and more like nature documentaries, than his small works, which are remain more focused, less loosely paced, more tied to the original text, more dramatic, and quite simply less unusual and inventive. THE DOLLHOUSE is one such small- cast work.

Schlusser writes, in his notes, about restraint and excess being the core of this particular dollhouse (I would love to be able to consult his notes further, but I am writing this from a hotel room in Nagoya, far away from my desk). I missed the original, 2007 production on which this short remount is based, so I cannot compare, but the current, 2011 production is one dollhouse centred around consumption, gratification, and people’s ability to resist their urges.

Australian theatre, interestingly, is not hugely concerned with consumerism (is it because it is too ungenteel a topic?, or is it because theatre is for rich people?), but this is a recurrent question for Schlusser. PEER GYNT, THE ZOMBIE STATE and THE HOLLOW had at their core money, what money can buy, and how one’s ability to buy things affects one’s social value and self-worth, in a contemporary reality largely pinpointed as Australian. More than anything, Schlusser is concerned with what we might call class, but understood more deeply, as the effect of a certain kind of monetary power on the psyche. Similarly to Christos Tsiolkas, Schlusser is interested in what we might term the essential, profound amorality of contemporary Australian society – a certain absence of core values produced by atheism, Australian national narrative, and what many people I speak to call ‘the effect of the Howard years’. Both of these story-tellers are prepared to go beyond sparkling drawing-room satire (from David Williamson’s uneven oeuvre to Hayloft Project’s excellent DELECTABLE SHELTER, and dig into the moral barrenness of lives in which plasma-screen TV becomes a measure of a great deal more than one’s disposable income.

When we meet them, Nora and Torvald have been very successfully transposed to contemporary Australia – Torvald has just got a promotion at the Macquarie Bank (Australian bank known for its aggressive investments – for those of my foreign readers, because every Australian knows Macquarie Bank). Nora is a yummy mummy, living a life of shopping and parties, with sidekick Dr Rank. The simple patriarchy of 19th-century Norway has become a more complicated story: Nora is a sex kitten alright, but Torvald is now the PlayStation husband, performing his masculinity through absence and silence, playing shoot ’em up games from an Eames armchair for most of the play. If Ibsen’s Nora had to be a chirpy little lark for a husband who treated her like a child (monitoring her candy intake, among other things), and if their marriage functioned as a happy game of pretend-domination and performed immaturity, Nikki Shiels works hard on being a sex dolly, offering a range of pornographic services in order to get her husband’s attention away from the computer game. This is not a household based on honesty, but two people’s unspoken fantasies of the other sex welded into a marriage. But Australian contemporary masculinity is a complex thing, lined with taciturn violence, where aggression is expressed more often as subdued undermining than paternal reprimanding: caught with marshmallows, Nora is seated in the Eames chair and made to gorge on them, while Torvald makes her repeat “nobody likes a chubby mummy”.

Everything here, be it sex, money or lollies and jobs, becomes a transactional good, a reward, a bribe: excess comes to signify happiness, and deprivation is meted out as punishment. There is a capitalist logic to this emotional world, very similar to that of Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, in which all love and all sex are simply transactions that raise or lower the characters’ social standing. But where Franzen shines a very harsh light on the Lambert family, Schlusser keeps his stage pastel-lit, in a way both ironic and earnest, critical and gentle. The constant gratification, an eternal present tense of morality, creates a household engaged in an ongoing party (another Schlusserian constant): the apex of the production is a beautiful, wordless celebration of gifts bestowed upon the house guests by Nora, with Torvald’s money, a choreography of Christmas lights, to the music of Sigur Ros. It is a seductive, pleasant fantasy world, and there is a surprising sweetness to this production. Even when Mrs Linde and Krogstad, whose emotionally honest romance provides a strong counterweight to the emotional candy floss of the Helmers, decide to let all secrets be spilled, they do it in a well-meaning spirit “I’ve been here for three days… nobody talks”.

Nikki Shiels. Photo: Marg Horwell.

For all the meta-frills and naturalistic banality, you can see this is a very faithful rendition of Ibsen’s play, and as such perhaps a lesser Schlusser work, certainly for my taste. The transposition is accurate, the interpretation convincing and intelligent. Still, it is a remount of an early work, and it anticipates rather than further developing the extraordinary theatricality of PEER GYNT or THE HOLLOW. There is a lot of acting here, a lot of text delivered in a fairly straight way, and we have by now seen Daniel Schlusser attempt and achieve more. I am much tougher here than I would be with almost any other Australian director, because Schlusser operates in another league entirely, and should continue to do so. It often feels here that the text is used as a crutch, to fill the stage (the swarm is too small) or to give shape to the performance – and I understand that this is a ludicrous thing to write, but I count on enough people to have seen PEER GYNT to understand what I mean. For all its merits, THE DOLLHOUSE is still reasonably conventional theatre, and Schlusser’s good name in my books is largely due to his other works. But, as I said earlier, there is a distinct separation between his small- and large-cast works, and this was a small one.

I had never quite believed in Ibsen’s ending of The Dollhouse. Nora’s final transformation from chirpy doll to emancipated woman seemed mechanical and too sudden, like a dramatic device with no grounding in realistic psyhology, until I read Lou Salomé’s interpretation of the play. Salomé, an early Freudian, wrote an exquisite psychoanalytical analysis of Ibsen’s female characters. In her interpretation, which I found eye-opening, Nora is a woman who not so much acts in someone else’s story, as stretches the limits of her own fantasy until she can no longer believe in it. Replacing one father figure with another, she responds to perceived love the only way she knows: by building her identity as an object of joy, as a happiness-bringer, a 19th-century manic pixie dream girl (this Natalie Portman in Garden State). According to Holly Welker, “MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up.” This is as good explanation as any to the dynamic of the Helmer marriage. Salomé:

Helmer’s joy in merriment and loveliness is, at the same time, the ordinary person’s aversion to struggle and seriousness – to anything that could disturb the aesthetic comfort in which he enjoys himself and his existence. The apparent moral rigor that helps Helmer gain prestige, his need to appear blameless and to keep his dignity unblemished – all this self-control in daily life ultimately arises out of the same egotistical perspective on pleasure.

For Nora, love requires a certain sacrifice of self, and according to Salomé she does gain strength through this sacrifice, to the point that, when she realises that Torvald is not prepared to do the same for love, she resigns from the game. For Salomé, Nora’s final disappointment in Torvald is akin to a loss of God, a total demystification. Her love is revealed to be a hoax, the object of her love unworthy of it. (Note that there is a mystical quality to this kind of love, something femininity has not yet gotten divorced from – Pauline Reage’s Story of O might be read as the Holy Testament of this worldview. It is also deeply, deeply romantic – something Elfriede Jelinek picks up on in her sequel to Ibsen’s play, What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband.) Salomé:

What all the worries and experiences of the entire recent past had not taught her is not accomplished in one instant: she suddenly sees life as it is, as it stands before her in the shape of Helmer, an ordinary person, who is tormented by fear and selfishness. All her life and her thought were concentrated in him, it was in him that her life took on its truth and self-evidence – it could be demystified and destroyed only in him. (…) Something strange and immense occurred in her. All her slowly awakened strength and independence, everything that she had so humbly and zealously collected as a present, a gift of love – her entire, inner being – now rears up and fights its way free from this love in an enormous protest.

When Nora slams the door to the dollhouse of her 19th-century marriage, she is not going anywhere much. She cannot work, she will never see her children again, it is a suicide in more than one sense. This was an entirely unrealistic ending at the time it premiered, an unexpected coda to what was until then a simple bourgeois story of drawing-room intrigue. It is said that women stood and applauded, and men sat in shock. What happened on that stage was staging of something impossible. It was performing a dream, a Marina Abramović moment. This was the original effect of The Doll’s House that cannot be replicated anymore. The technical problem of The Doll’s House today is how to credibly stage this ending, how to give it the devastating impact it had then. The underlying assumption of tragedy is, thankfully, no longer possible. A woman would be leaving a marriage with children, off to a menial job (or three) and – in Australia at least (as opposed to, say, Iceland) – a world in which single mothers are still routinely assumed to create somewhat delinquent children. But still, this is not a tragic ending anymore. So Schlusser resuscitates the alternative ending, one that Ibsen had to provide for actresses that refused to perform the ending: an awful dialogue in which Torvald shows Nora her peacefully sleeping children and asks how she could possibly leave them, her dear little angels. No, she couldn’t, she decides, and stays.

I cannot quite make up my mind about the ending to this production. It strikes some false notes with me, but also some scintillatingly right ones. In retrospect, it looks quite smart. At the time, however, I was unconvinced, in particular by Kade Greenland’s Torvald, whose anger I found neither convincing nor frightening. Ostermeier’s NORA, for all its banalities, managed to create an enormous sense of physical threat, fear and loss of faith – when his Nora shoots Torvald in her Lara Croft costume, I understood why she would. When Schlusser’s Nikki Shiels comes out in a tracksuit and has a long protofeminist dialogue with her husband, whom she has now decided to leave, the production is, at least on the opening night, at least for me, hitting between the keys for the first time of the evening. And yet, upon her suggestion that they give back their rings, here is Torvald saying “I paid for both”, in a moment of majestic truth. Here is a man whose morality exists as righteousness, and whose righteousness is based on the money he earns, and who reacts instinctively to insult – in one line. Then, revealing a real, blonde sleeping child pierces your heart, because no child was until then visible on stage. And yes, this is an incredibly hard scene to get right – but it is also the scene on which we judge the success of any interpretation of this play. When Torvald hugs his daughter, the possibility of him having just acquired another songbird is terrifying, but the text has been largely kept, and a mother, however irresponsible, would today probably not be getting out of a marriage without her children. Is this a passive-aggressive, inconsistent, emotionally manipulative man, a product of contemporary patriarchy? Perhaps. Is this a woman who speaks like she knows what she wants, but doesn’t really? Or is she a woman who chooses yet another sacrifice of self, in the all-too-short moment of reflection as she is walking off the stage? Perhaps. It was not clear. After so much precision, I suddenly saw the interpretation missing its mark.

I understand and share Schlusser’s suspicion towards Nora’s emancipation. I cannot quite shake off the impression that modern-day Nora still ends up in a territory closer to the owlish disintegration of self announced in Story of O than in a fulfilled feminist dream. But this confusion that women’s lib has brought us is grasped so uncertainly by this ending, which itself would need to be less confused if it were to pinpoint it properly. This is a very minor criticism of a work which is extraordinary on so many levels – but the effect of a work of theatre is largely in its landing.

* of which I am a somewhat-member; the tone of this review will hopefully explain how and why
** although I am speaking here as a person who has managed to miss every single production by Four Larks and Mutation Theatre, please bear with this gap in my knowledge

SEE ALSO (and disagree with me, because Daniel Schlusser’s work ought to be discussed more than it presently is):
Alison Croggon’s review
Cameron Woodhead’s review

The Dollhouse, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Tiffany Abbott, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, sound by Martin Kay. With Nikki Shiels, Kade Greenland, Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Daniel Schlusser and Cate Bastian/Gabrielle Abbott. Fortfive Downstairs, September 15-25.

Tagged , , , ,

On girls and bikes

Picture this: Turkish island of Heybeliada. Beautiful name, big blue sky, people sitting in cafes by the sea. An older woman, in her fifties, dressed entirely in turquoise, is helping a girl that could be ten years of age to get on a much bigger bike. They succeed; the girl rides off, the woman sits down with two women in a cafe, both younger (early thirties). The turquoise woman has a headscarf, but is otherwise in plain clothes. The young women are dressed non-religiously, as is the girl, who comes back, gets off the bike, and joins them at the table.

Continue reading

Tagged , ,

Review: J.A.T.O.

Until mid-July, I was in Zagreb, a place with a big beautiful central square, a predisposition to extraordinary negativity and bitterness (on which in another post), and an excellent theatre scene (but try telling that to a Zagrepčan, and they do look at you like you have just deeply embarrassed yourself by disclosing the lowness of your standards and the narrowness of your horizon).

But, while there, I had the opportunity to acquire one of the more recent issues of Frakcija, a very good theatre magazine, dedicated to the last decade of Croatian theatre writing, which included a generous fragment of Vedrana Klepica’s J.A.T.O., a play I would later have the opportunity to see staged in Melbourne, at the MKA. The world is at times a manageably-sized place. Continue reading

Tagged , ,