Christmas et alHamletSmall Companies and Community TheatreThe Sapphires7 Days 10 YearsPhaedra's LoveMysteriumThe Conquest of the South PoleMIAF: The Beggar's Opera <i>and</i> The Return of UlyssesMIAF: Via DolorosaMIAF: Alladeen <i>and</i> Failing Kansas ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas et al

Season's greeting to all Theatre Notes readers, and my best wishes for 2005.

When I started this blog, back in June, I said I'd continue if it was found readers and was fun. TN has managed both very nicely, so we'll be continuing into next year, building on what's been started here. We've scored around 8500 hits since we started - modest but solid - and TN has been guesting on ABC Radio and elsewhere. The main joy of doing this blog is my complete independence; if the odd typo sneaks in past my editing, at least no one is slashing my carefully wrought copy to pieces. I have a few ideas which might get a run over the next few months, hoping to open out a context which is slightly more international, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the site evolves over the next year.

I'd like to thank Melbourne theatre companies for their support, and a special thanks to all those who have emailed or otherwise contacted me and given me such encouragement over the past six months. I've been quite taken aback by the level of good will I've discovered in the theatre community here, and that, more than anything, convinces me that what's happening here is worth doing. Champagne to the lot of you.

I won't do an end-of-year review, as I've only got six months to look back on. But I will say it's been an interesting time, and I've seen some remarkably good theatre. January will be relatively quiet here, though there will be a couple of reviews. But mainly I have to put my head down and finish my novel before I grow senile, and so that is where I'll be putting most of my energy for the next few weeks. And then I'll be back full-throttle.

See you in 2005!


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Friday, December 10, 2004


Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Oscar Redding, with Richard Pyros, Adrian Mulraney, Nicki Paull, John Francis Howard, Thomas Wright and Ben Packer. DDT Studio, 515 High Street, Northcote. La Tragedie d'Hamlet, directed by Peter Brook, with Adrian Lester, Jeffery Kissoon, Natasha Parry, Bruce Meyers, Scott Handy, Shantala Shivalingappa, Rohan Siva, Asil Rais, Yoshi Oida, Akram Khan, Nicolas Gaster, Antonin Stahly, Jerome Grillon. DVD, Agat Films 2001.

On the face of it, it may seem very unfair to compare these two versions of Hamlet. One is a filmed production by one of the greatest theatre directors of the past century, created in Brook's gorgeous Paris base, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord; the other an exemplary example of poor theatre, put on by a young Melbourne director in a shop front in High Street, Northcote.

As it happens, it is not unfair; theatre is a great leveller. Perhaps for similar reasons - a certain straightforwardness in approaching Shakespeare - both are notable for their clarity, and they share a great text and remarkable actors. Where Redding's production lacks Brook's exquisite aesthetic polish, it gains in robust irreverence and visceral power. But what strikes me most is how both these productions spin the focus on this most protean of texts, to reveal a Hamlet in whose body itself turns the sword of politics.

The great Shakespearean critic Jan Kott says of Hamlet that it is a play that absorbs its times. So there are, among many others, the Romantic Hamlet of the 19th century, wanly melancholic; the mid-Century Hamlet, which Kott particularly documented, in which interpretation leans on the pitiless wheel of power; and now this 21st century Hamlet, at once sensuous and full of loathing, raging against the mortal trappings of his flesh.

Part of the reason for these many Hamlets is that the six hour text is seldom performed entirely as written. It means that each production is cut according to the cloth of its interpretation. Both Brook and Redding take a broadly similar approach, removing the cumbersome opening scene with the ghost, and cutting out entirely the complicated narrations of battles and politics. They fillet out a claustrophobic family tragedy of individuals trapped in remorseless passions. In these productions, the personal is most assuredly political.

This approach rejects most modern interpretations of Hamlet, in which the character of Fortinbras is brought to the foreground. Fortinbras - who claims the throne of Denmark after all the corpses stop twitching on the floor - is in some versions an alter ego of Hamlet, in others, the legitimate heir to the throne, the man who restores order to the broken kingdom. "If one wishes to places Hamlet's moral conflicts into a historical context," says Kott, "one cannot ignore the role played by Fortinbras".

Well, in these versions Fortinbras has disappeared entirely. But I think this is not so much a symptom of ahistorical consciousness, as a lack of belief in the possibility of the restoration of order, or even in the possibility of order itself. No king now comes to make it all right: the plays ends with the slaughter. Today's Hamlet is considerably darker than previous versions: it contains no illusion of consolation.

The brooding sense of claustrophobia is reinforced by the doubling, some of which is repeated in both productions: in both, Polonius and the gravedigger (Bruce Meyers in Brook's, and John Francis Howard in Redding's), and Claudius and the Ghost (Jeffrey Kissoon and Adrian Mulraney respectively) are played by the same actor. The doubling of Claudius in particular throws Hamlet's revulsion against his uncle into ironic relief: we are reminded that he is importuned to kill his own kin, outraging familial ties just as his uncle did in murdering Hamlet's father.

Redding goes much further, doubling the roles of Gertrude and Ophelia (Nicki Paull), which makes the play's incestuous sexual drama even more knotted. His most audacious move is to double the roles of Hamlet and his friend Horatio: Horatio is played as a handpuppet. That you accept this without question is a considerable tribute to the intensity and skill of Richard Pyros' performance. What is fascinating is its theatrical ambiguity: part of the time, it is quite possible to imagine seriously that a ridiculous pair of pink eyes is Horatio, Hamlet's only friend; at other times, the hand puppet seems another aspect of his madness and loneliness, a crazed aspect of Hamlet's splintered self.

Adrian Lester's Hamlet is gentler than Richard Pyros', whose wit is crueller and violence more dangerous (especially when he is holding a huge kitchen knife to Gertrude's throat). Lester's performance is framed by lush, rich sensuousness: the rust-red walls of the theatre, the naked flames of lamps, luxurious crimson fabrics, the melancholy scrape of a cello. Pyros, on the other hand, is working in a bare, scruffy space lit by fluorescent tubes, with the sound of high street traffic as background accompaniment.

But again I was struck by similarities as much as differences: these Hamlets are mercurial, impelled by savage laughter rather than by dark melancholia. They describe an intelligence tormented by circumstance: that circumstance being primarily mortality, the fate of all flesh, but also its sullying, a fatal disgust at moral and fleshly corruption.

Of course, there is more to Hamlet than Hamlet; and these productions feature ensemble casts of great depth. One would expect that of Brook; but Redding has gathered together some very fine actors, who have created a subtlety and depth of performance which rivals, and in the case of Ophelia surpasses, that Brook elicited from his. All deserve mention, but Adrian Mulraney's authoritative and subtle performance as Claudius - both unrepentant usurper and repentant brother - never falters.

In Redding's production, the women's roles are strong and disturbing. Nicki Paul plays Gertrude as an alcoholic, constantly sipping from a jam jar, who imperceptibly becomes more and more drunk as the play progresses, until by the final scene she can barely stand. Her announcement of Ophelia's death - told through uncontrollable fits of laughter - brings home the terror of the girl's suicide in a way that no sober rendition could. And Ophelia's mad scene is shaming and pitiable, in the way that real madness is.

It is very clear in this drama how the women are destroyed, both morally and physically, by their entrapment within male power. The single power Gertrude and Ophelia possess is their sexuality: it is their "virtue", a commodity which belongs to the family, not to themselves, and it is not theirs to bestow freely. Laetres (Thomas Wright) and Polonius lecture Ophelia at length about how she ought to be behave, and Hamlet likewise has no hesitation in censuring his mother for outraging the legitimate bonds of marriage. The fear of women's anarchic sexual desire lurks uneasily beneath the surface of the action, erupting in male disgust ("Frailty, thy name is woman!") or in female madness and despair.

But it is not the women who are treacherous, but the men: most notably, Claudius's murder of his brother to gain the crown, the betrayal which unravels all the rest. And there is also Hamlet's feigned detestation of Ophelia, which drives her to suicide; Rosencrantz and Guildernstern's deceptive spying on Hamlet, betraying the bonds of friendship; Laertes' betrayal of honourable combat, by poisoning his sword.

Hamlet is, more than almost any other Shakespearean play except perhaps The Tempest, deeply concerned with the provenance of theatre itself. Almost no one in the play is who he or she seems to be: all are playing roles, whether self-imposed or not, and this is underlain by our knowledge that the "real" characters are played by actors, who are also not who they seem to be. Is this merely deception and betrayal? Hamlet's pretended madness is, rather, an attempt to find the truth: as he says, "the play's the thing/ In which to catch the conscience of a King". These potent ambiguities, the mask as a revealer of truth and as a lie, drive the fascination of the action as much as the repressed sexual passions.

There is a vital difference between these two productions: one was performed four years ago, and was watched on a screen; the other occurred live, feet away from me. No recorded performance beats the living experience, no matter how artfully filmed it might be. But they both gave me a new Hamlet, and reminded me that it is, as Kott says, "the strangest play ever written".

Both productions tear away the cultural barnacles that so often weigh down this most monumental of English icons - the deadening reverence, the fear of poetry, the stereotypical expectations - and deliver it into the present, with all the complexities and contradictions of a living thing. It's a rare experience that always leaves me elated. And such experiences are why I persist in going to the theatre.

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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Small Companies and Community Theatre

But of course money isn't everything; great theatre can be made with very little, as it is in Australia, over and over again. It's simply a pity that it can't be made a little easier . . . but for that to happen, you’d have to have a government that actually cared about culture and not the gang of moral and cultural bankrupts that are in power at the moment, who seem determined to silence creative voices and reduce us all to frightened, well behaved children. You'd also have to have an audience that felt empowered, that felt the theatre was something important, and that it belonged to them and meant something to them.

Last night, playwright Daniel Keene delivered the keynote address for graduation students at Swinburne University of Technology's Small Companies and Community Theatre Course. His experiences working as a writer in French theatre give a different slant to the possibilities of theatre's place in the community. For the full speech, click on...

I've been invited here tonight to say something about my experience as a playwright, with specific reference to my work in France and my involvement with French theatre companies, particularly concerning those companies’ Community Theatre work.

I should first explain briefly what my involvement with French theatre is.

My work has been produced in France, in French, for the past five years. I have had six volumes of plays published by Editions Theatrales (that’s 22 plays in all). My plays have been performed at Scene Nationales (National Theatres) in Toulouse, Calais, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Nimes, Strasbourg, Nantes, Challon, Douai, Limoge and Marseille among others. It has also been produced at theatres such as the Theatre de la Ville in Paris (which annually attracts the largest audiences in the city, and has two theatres of 1,000 and 800 seats respectively), at the Theatre de la Commune and Theatre du Rond-Point, both also in Paris, at the Theatre de la Moliere in Bordeaux and at the Avignon Festival. I've had five plays produced by France Culture (French National Radio) and one broadcast on Arté (French national television). For the past six years I have travelled to France at least once or twice a year, staying for about two months each time.

I am at present working on a number of commissions for French theatre companies, including two opera librettos, a play for marionettes, an adaptation of a novel by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare and a play for Maurice Benichou, an actor/director who has worked with Peter Brook at the International Centre of Theatre Research in Paris for the past thirty years.

The theatres I work with are all state funded. I have not been involved in the Private Theatre (what we’d call Commercial Theatre) which is limited to musicals, light comedies and bedroom farces, the tackiness of which sometimes defies description: basically, private theatre provides slick, popular (if expensive) entertainment for the upper middle class. For me, it's what Peter Brook describes as 'deadly theatre' in his book The Open Space, which remains one of the best books ever written about theatre and what it can mean.

The funding and structure of French theatre is a complex business. But to be very brief, the two main tiers of state funded theatre are Scene Nationales (National Theatres) and CDNs (National Dramatic Centres). I probably needn’t tell you that the funding theatre receives in France makes the funding it receives here look like a mere pittance (which in fact it is).

I currently have three plays running in Paris: Paradise at Theatre de la Commune, (a co-production with Theatre de la Ville), Because You Are Mine at Theatre de l’Opprimé (the Theatre of the Oppressed, which was founded by the Brazilian director, playwright and theatre activist Augusto Boal in the 1970s during his political exile in Paris) and Black is the Colour at La Boutonniere (The Buttonhole: a small, newly established, studio theatre).

For me, one of the many reasons for working in France is the breadth of the theatrical possibilities it offers me. While in Australia I am considered a "fringe playwright", in France my work is produced in popular, mainstream theatres. Of the plays currently running in Paris, Paradise is the largest production. It opened in September and will run until March next year, playing in at least five cities. The budget for the production is 600,000 euros (that's just over one million dollars). There’s a lot you can do with that much money.

But of course money isn't everything; great theatre can be made with very little, as it is in Australia, over and over again. It's simply a pity that it can't be made a little easier . . . but for that to happen, you’d have to have a government that actually cared about culture and not the gang of moral and cultural bankrupts that are in power at the moment, who seem determined to silence creative voices and reduce us all to frightened, well behaved children. You'd also have to have an audience that felt empowered, that felt the theatre was something important, and that it belonged to them and meant something to them. But perhaps all of that's another matter, for another time.

To get back to France:

Theatre de la Commune, where Paradise is currently playing, is a CDN. The theatre is subsidised by the both the National and Regional governments (80 per cent of its budget comes from government sources, 20 per cent from Box Office: an interesting fact when you consider that government funding for the MTC is only 15 per cent of the MTC's budget). Funding for CDNs is triennial and requires an explicit commitment to the goal of extending theatre to new audiences. There is at least one CDN in each of the 22 Regions of France.

An important point to note is that these subsidies are granted only if the theatre fulfils a legal requirement that the theatre provide a public service. This public service can take many forms and is often called Social Action (it's what we in Australia would call Community Theatre). The same goes for National Theatres. There are many kinds of Social Action, ranging from actors and directors running workshops or performing plays in prisons and in hospitals, working with handicapped people, running classes and performing in schools and workplaces and running workshops for specific groups such as new immigrants, the unemployed, single parents, retired people, etc. All of this is offered to the people involved at no cost to them.

What all of this means, of course, is that theatre is obliged to participate in and contribute to the wider social, cultural and political life of the community in which it exists. This is not seen by the theatres as any kind of burden, but as an essential part of the theatre's work; in fact, it is considered one of the fundamental reasons why the theatre exists at all. In France, theatre is considered and has always been considered to be a central part of the social, cultural and political life of its community. What is most important is that the community understand that the theatre belongs to them: it exists for their benefit, to help express their concerns, to celebrate their lives and their culture and, ultimately, to defend and maintain their right to free and open public expression.

I could go on about how the role of the actor is perceived politically and culturally (and it is important in relation to the place of theatre in French culture) but that's outside the scope of what I want to talk about tonight. Suffice to say that actors never talk about working in an "industry". Culture is perceived as its own reward; its value isn't measured by how many jobs it creates or how many tourists it attracts or how much income it generates, as it generally is here. Actors have an important role within the culture, not merely a job promoting it; and this role is recognized and supported by the state, even when an actor isn’t actually employed. But all that’s another, complex, matter.

To get back to the point . . . this sense of "public ownership" of the theatre is at the heart of Social Action, which is, in effect, the establishment of a genuine, working relationship between the theatre and its audience.

I have been involved in a number of such "Actions". I’ll begin with the most simple example.

The National Theatre of Challon is in the heart of the Champagne region on the river Marne. It's quite a small town, maybe a little larger than, say, Castlemaine. It's about two hours by train from Paris. It has a large, modern theatre with two performance spaces (800 seats and 250 seats) and an exhibition space. Like all National Theatres, dance and music events are also presented by the theatre. I should also add that all National Theatres and all CDNs have a year long program of Theatre for Young People (from pre-schoolers to teenagers).

Anyway, in Challon every second Saturday (market day) the theatre puts on something that it calls "home from market". An open invitation is issued to the town's residents: lunch will be served at the theatre at one o'clock and all are invited. All you have to do is bring something to eat (some bread, some fruit, some cheese); this will be shared among all who attend. The theatre supplies its own food as well, and wine and, of course, champagne. The theatre's staff attend the lunch, including the administrator, the public relations officer and the artistic director. Actors and directors are also invited, as are writers. The event is very informal.

About two months ago, I was a guest at one of these lunches. There were about 50 "guests" from the town. Before lunch began, the artistic director made a short speech, briefly outlining what work the theatre would be presenting over the next few weeks, what theatre companies would be involved, etc. I was then introduced and made a short speech, explaining why I was in Challon and what else I was doing in France. Then it was time for questions, which lasted about half an hour. Lunch lasted for about three hours. As I've said, the event was very informal, and people talked (and ate and drank) non-stop. It ended with everyone being invited to a play reading later that afternoon. Admission was free. The actors reading had travelled from Paris, where they were preparing a production of the play. The play to be read (Low) was one of mine and I would be available afterwards to answer (more) questions. More than half the people at the lunch attended the reading, as well as a few dozen others. This time the questions lasted for over an hour and a half.

That evening, I went to a large house on the outskirts of the town. Three of my plays, all monologues, were to be performed in the house. One in the bedroom (Brief Darkness), one in the cellar (What Remains) and one in the living room (The Rain). There were about twenty audience members, invited by the woman who owned the house.

The actors were from the champagne region and often worked at the National Theatre. The performances were fantastic. Very simple lighting was used; almost no technology was involved. It was all about the actor and the text: the most simple and dramatic equation. The audience sat, or stood, where they could. It was an extraordinarily open and generous event. Then we had dinner. And more champagne. The three plays are still being performed in people's houses and apartments in Challon, and will be until the end of the year; all someone has to do is call the theatre and "invite" the plays into their home. They then invite their audience (the theatre may also invite some people, depending on the size of the house).

All of this, of course, costs money. The theatre considers the expense an investment in its community. It is holding the doors of the theatre open to anyone who wants to come in, as well as taking its work, literally, into people’s homes: in this way, the theatre can become a part of people’s every day lives. The theatre is, of course, creating and educating its audience by doing this; and it is creating in the minds of that audience the idea that the theatre is an active part of their community and its life: the theatre is something that belongs to them.

This sense of ownership has one particularly interesting outcome, among many others: it is the possibility of the audience questioning the decisions of the theatre, feeling that they have the right to criticise the theatre's programming choices and feeling that they have the right to ask for the kind of theatre that they want. In other words a dialogue is possible, between those who come to the theatre and those who create it. It’s a (wait for it . . . ) relationship.

I should pause a moment here to say that the situation of theatre in France is far from ideal, even if I might seem to be describing it as such But I am giving a brief, rather schematic description of the situation of French theatre; I am talking about what I perceive as its ideals and what I have seen, what I have been privileged to experience at first hand. The broader politics and some of the harsher day-to-day realities of creating theatre in France are outside what I am properly able to discuss. But I know that many of the freedoms and rights of French theatre are under threat, as are all freedoms and rights in countries that have essentially right wing governments.

The creation of theatre is always and always has been a struggle, no matter where or when it is created; theatre is ephemeral, it lasts only a moment. It can only happen when an agreement is made, between those who create it and those who witness it, to come together in a certain place at a certain time to share a particular event: to witness the presence of the actor, who speaks the words of the writer (well, most of the time), in a space created by the designer, under the guidance of the director, for the benefit, for the delight, in the service of the audience. It's all terribly human, terribly fragile and can be enormously powerful.

So it is always difficult, because that's its nature: any situation where human beings attempt to work together towards a common end can always be a tragedy waiting to happen or impossibly comic. But the creation of theatre is even more of a struggle now, when the right to dissent, to disagree with those who hold power, to demand the right to speak, to hold culture above profit, to thumb your nose at authority or accepted wisdom, to celebrate difference rather than to fear it, is deemed to be a threat to the security of the state. I might seem to be exaggerating. I hope that I am. But I only have one pair of eyes and I can only see what I see. I fear for the rights we take for granted. I think that we all should, because we may at some time be called upon to defend them. And it will not be easy.

But that's enough of that. I tend to wander. I'll be here all night if I'm not careful.

So, to return to good old France:

More complex than the relationship that I have described between the theatre and its community in Challon is the relationship between the theatre and its community in Marseille, where I have worked each year for the past three years.

In Marseille I work with Michel Andre, a theatre director about the same age as me. His mother was Corsican and his father Belgian. He grew up in Belgium, a decent, working class boy who had no idea where he belonged. He was kicked out of school (because he had no talent for "academic" subjects) and became a motor mechanic. Theatre was the final refuge he found in his twenties, by accident; and he discovered that he was good at it. But that’s another story.

Michel speaks three languages. Unfortunately English isn’t one of them . . . and my French is appalling. He often speaks to me in Italian, which is a language I don’t speak at all. But somehow we communicate. I don't know how. It’s a small miracle.

Not so long ago, or should I say "Once upon a time", Michel was a well respected actor. Well, anyway, our story begins when he was in a touring production of a play by Moliere, playing to full houses in large, very swank theatres. He was having a great time, and so were the audiences. The production was a success and so was he. But prior to curtain one night Michel happened to look out of his dressing room window. What he saw in the near distance was a block of what we'd call commission flats: bleak, featureless boxes stacked one on top of the other where "the poor people" lived.

Michel knew that none of the residents of that block of flats would be attending the performance he was about to take part in. Well, that was bloody obvious, wasn't it? Well, perhaps it was. But Michel suddenly wondered (despite the obvious) why, actually, wouldn't they be in the theatre to see this rude, funny, beautifully written, well acted play? Apart from the fact that going to the theatre was too expensive and too intimidating (and full of wankers and other middle class dickheads), it was because the theatre meant nothing to them; it had nothing to do with their lives; it was a distant luxury that could be done without; it was meaningless. Michel was suddenly appalled. He quit the production. Yes, it was a rather extreme thing to do. But why did he do it? Because he couldn’t tolerate being part of something that could be considered meaningless by people who would actually be delighted by it, if they only felt that they had been invited to enjoy it.

Michel decided to "invite" people into the theatre; the people in those bleak, featureless boxes stacked one on top of the other where "the poor people" lived.

After Paris, Marseille is the second biggest city in France. It is a hard, difficult place. A century ago it was a thriving, wealthy metropolis. But times have changed, and they've changed quickly. You only have to see the dozens of boarded up "Grand Hotels" and derelict, obviously once fashionable department stores in the centre of the city to know this. Today, Marseille has enormous unemployment problems. Racial violence is common. It's a city of immigrants, of refugees, of itinerants, of outsiders. It's a harsh, troubled place. It's where France comes face to face with its brutal colonial history. And it's not dealing with it very well.

But, you see, again and again, it's impossible to talk about French theatre without finding a way to speak about its social, cultural and political context. It's meaningless to describe Michel Andre's work without describing its context. His work is a product of and a response to the community (the city) in which he has chosen to live. There are no "abstracts" involved. The work is specific to the environment in which it is created, specific to the people involved, both on the stage and in front of it.

Which is where I come in: the total stranger who cannot speak any of the languages I have to confront in Marseille.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's step back a moment.

Michel creates theatre with people who are not actors. They are people who live in those bleak tower blocks he saw from the window of his dressing room, most of whom have never been to the theatre. They become a part of the theatre without really knowing what the possibilities of theatre are. Michel is the focus . . . of some event, an event that he is going to help them create, that will give them (at least) something to do, that he promises will be exciting and rewarding, that will give them strength, that will allow them to express themselves, that will be safe and dangerous at the same time, that will be demanding while at the same time be liberating, an event in which they can hide themselves while at the same time revealing what they feel, what they desire, what they fear, what they love. And there will be people who will witness this event, people from the same tower blocks, and others who are interested in such events, who want, who perhaps even need to participate in this kind of event.

What Michel is describing is an act of theatre.

Michel has been working with a group of about forty people for about five years. Most of them are unemployed or at best have part time, usually menial, jobs. He gathered them together by simply putting up posters. Basically, the posters said "Got nothing to do? Come and do something". People come and go as they wish. Some people have been with the group since the beginning. New people arrive from time to time. At present, they range in age from a ten year old girl to a man of seventy. Many of the people he works with are first or second generation immigrants; they come from places like Cameroon, Algeria, Sicily, Morocco and Guinea. Some of these people can barely speak French. It took him about a year, working three days a week, to get anyone to stand up alone in front of the others and speak. What did he ask them to speak about? About themselves. It was a long, slow process. Eventually everyone told their story. From these stories the group created their first performance, entitled What Is Happening To The World? The piece was performed at the National Theatre of Marseille (The Merlan) for three nights. It was also performed in the car park outside a large supermarket.

I met Michel at the Avignon Festival in 2000. He had read my plays and wanted to meet me, to tell me about his work and invite me to collaborate with him. I went to Marseille and stayed for a few weeks; I met the people he was working with, I listened to their stories, I watched them improvise. Michel wanted to create another play, but this time he wanted the people in his group to discover what it was like to speak words written by someone else, to find out what it was like to make someone else's words your own, to tell stories about "imaginary" characters and to find out how this could be a way of telling a different kind of truth; he wanted them to discover a new kind of freedom. He wanted them to be actors.

I came home with pages and pages of notes, suggestions, ideas, impressions. My job was to write a play that was actually a sequence of short plays; a collection of fragments that Michel and his actors could arrange as they saw fit: I would give them the raw material and they would invent the construction of the play. Not everyone in the group could be involved in the project; those who weren’t worked with Michel’s assistant, Marie Isabelle. They worked on a play of mine, Low, a two hander of 25 scenes. They played each scene with two different actors (that’s 25 couples) discovering some strange, comic, tragic combinations.

The play I wrote for the group was called The Possible Ways. Rehearsals lasted six months. Again it was performed in the National Theatre, which funded the project along with Michel's own company. It played for three nights to packed houses; most of the audience came from the commission flats where most of the actors also came from.

I wrote another play for Michel and his actors last year. It was called In These Uncertain Times. It was a more formally structured play. Again I drew on the lives of the people involved, but this time I moved little further away from their reality, making bolder imaginative leaps, taking the play further into a fictional world which nevertheless retained the echoes of the actors' day to day lives. What Michel and I were hoping to do was to discover a way for his actors to find a freedom of expression; to escape, if only briefly, the confines and the boredom of their poverty, the discrimination they encounter, the prison of the tower blocks they live in. At least that's what the actors told us the play did for them.

I'm now writing a new play for Michel. It's a two hander, for himself and a young boy in the group, Cedric, who's twelve. It's about a boy who leaves his parents and chooses another father, another life. This time, the other members of the group will be in the audience. They go to the theatre now.

Daniel Keene, November 24 2004.

Daniel Keene's Home Page

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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Sapphires

The Sapphires by Tony Briggs, directed by Wesley Enoch. With Wayne Blair, Rachel Maza, Ursula Yovich, Lisa Flanagan, Deborah Mailman, Stephen Lovatt, Aljin Abella and Chris Kirby. MTC at the Arts Centre Playhouse, until December 18.

My thoughts about The Sapphires were complicated by a huge argument I had afterwards with a friend. This friend, who shall remain nameless, had not actually seen the show. But he pointed at the photograph of the the four lead actors posing in sequinned frocks Supremes-style on the front of the program, and said: "Well, that's the only way you can get Aboriginal actors onto the main stages. Don't talk about anything difficult - just get them to dress up like Americans. Lots of singing and dancing. Very worthy. Pack 'em in."

There's enough of a cruel truth in this response to give pause. It's difficult to imagine the MTC producing a play that, for example, deals front-on with the problem of domestic abuse in remote Aboriginal communities. Or, on the other hand, matter-of-factly casting a hot young Aboriginal actor as Hamlet.

And The Sapphires is as close as anything I've seen to a sure-fire hit. Its energy, from the moment Wayne Blair steps onto the stage and revs up the audience, is irresistible, and its narrative - that of four young working class Aboriginal sisters in the 1960s, who form a girl group and tour Vietnam - is appealingly up-beat, toughened by some black (forgive the pun) humour. It's something to see the usually staid MTC audience whooping and yelling like teens at a rock concert.

The Sapphires is, in many ways, light-weight theatre. But it has a lot of redeeming features, not the least of them being its complete lack of po-faced "worthiness". Probably the most obvious comparison is with Minefields and Miniskirts, a music theatre piece about the Vietnam War produced by Playbox earlier this year. Where Minefields and Miniskirts was leaden with the weight of its own significance, The Sapphires brashly bounces in, grabs you by the lapels and forcibly reminds you that Aboriginality is about more than victimhood. The note of special pleading dies in its first big number.

After all, the notion that Aboriginal artists should be solely concerned with the social problems of their people is an imprisonment in itself, a circular dilemma which is familiar to most thoughtful feminists. The Sapphires joyously kicks over these chains, showing an aspect of Aboriginal culture which is less familiar than it ought to be. Popular music - rock and roll, motown, country, blues and soul - is deeply embedded in contemporary Aboriginal culture; in Central Australia, children learn to play guitar almost as soon as they can walk. For those kids, and for the women in The Sapphires, music is the doorway to dreams. And sometimes, it works.

The story is economically told, between gutsy performances of classics like (Love is like a) Heatwave, Think and Heard it Through the Grapevine. It concerns four Koori sisters, Gail (Rachel Maza), Kay (Lisa Flanagan), Cynthia (Deborah Mailman) and Julie (Ursula Yovich), most of whom work boring factory jobs in Melbourne. Their little sister Julie, clearly miserably pregnant, has run away from home to live with her sisters, who with typical sibling cruelty leave her at home while they sail out in their bright dresses to a talent quest in a nightclub. But of course, Julie follows them, and proves to have the best voice of the lot...And so they get their first big gig - touring Vietnam to entertain the troops.

Tony Briggs' rapid-delivery dialogue relies on sardonic humour; when Cynthia says that she wants to be a model, her sister bursts out laughing. "A model? Haven't you noticed? You're black! The only time we get photographed is when we're arrested." This writing does exactly what is required, without doing any more; and it reveals the tougher details of these women's lives - Kay's horrific abortion at 14, which has left her sterile or, in one particularly good scene, Julie's terror when she wanders into a trench full of US soldiers and the air is suddenly thick with the threat of rape - with a direct realism which forbids self pity.

There's a well-handled sub-plot about a young Vietnamese boy, Joe (Aljin Abella), searching for his family, three different comic romances, and a tragic ending which is swallowed up, inexplicably I think, by a sudden swing into a song. Perhaps this is a fear of ending on too depressing a note, but it left me feeling slightly cheated - The Sapphires had cut itself enough slack to play its tragedy as well as its celebration.

Wesley Enoch's production is characterised by very slick staging, helped by good use of a revolve and curtains: the stage is stripped to its bare essentials, focusing on the band, with stylised elements of each scene (a kitchen sink and door, an army jeep) sweeping in and out as required. But most of all I liked its robust theatricality. This is great popular theatre, which is confident enough to take no prisoners. And the singing is fabulous.

Melbourne Theatre Company

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

7 Days 10 Years

7 Days 10 Years by Louis Milutinovic, directed by Chris Bendall, design ed by Peter Corrigan, music and sound Philip McLeod. With Anastasia Malinoff, Laura Lattuada, Sergio Tell, Ernie Gray, Steve Mouzakis, Odette Joannides, Larissa Gallagher, Simon Kingsley Hall. Theatre@risk at Theatreworks, until November 21.

Flaubert said, in relation to novels, that "God is in the details". And equally, one might say that in speaking about a society in disastrous flux, it's the details - the "opaque areas" rather than what are noted in conventional histories as significant events - that are most telling. They are certainly most telling in theatre, for human interaction is the life-blood of drama. And in 7 Days 10 Years, Louis Milutinovic reveals some of the realities of the Balkans wars in the 1990s by following the fortunes of a single family over the decade before the NATO bombing of Serbia.

The Balkan conflict was, for many people in the West, an obscure war of bloody ethnic hatred in a little-known place. By focusing on intimate detail, Louis Milutinovic's lucid narrative offers another view than the lens of opaque ethnic hatred through which such conflicts are usually reported. It makes what happened in Serbia at once more legible and more alarming: after all, blind self-interest, apathy, corruption and fear-driven nationalism are the currency of our times.

In its structure and approach, this play owes a debt to Bertolt Brecht's Fear and Misery in the Third Reich, in which Brecht adopted small-scale, naturalistic forms to demonstrate how fascism impacts on the most ordinary of interactions. Fear and Misery in the Third Reich is a frightening parable which shows how easily extraordinary circumstances became normal, the incremental but deadly adjustments that people make in order to negotiate daily life under a Fascist regime.

Similarly, Milutinovic largely ignores the ethnic arguments - for example, the Serbian narrative of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 - to concentrate on quotidian detail. The rise of Milosevic and Serbian nationalism and the wars with Bosnia and Kosovo are referred to obliquely: their effects are visible in the crippling of a young soldier, the heroin addiction of his sister, the impoverishment of the middle class, the marginalisation and final silencing of dissent, and the banal but terrifying thuggery of a violent kleptocracy.

The play moves swiftly through seven toughly-written scenes, each titled, in another nod to Brecht, by the date of the events. They chart the gradual disenfranchisement of the family; the activist mother Svetlana (Anastasia Malinoff) loses her job as a teacher and is forced to sell cigarettes on the black market; the son Ivan (Steve Mouzakis) is left crippled by the war, and his girlfriend Vesna (Odette Joannides) leaves for a job in Italy and becomes a prostitute. Even Svetlana's brother Branko (Sergio Tell), a small town official, loses everything he has gained through his petty corruption. The play ends with the arrival of the US war planes, which are greeted by the dissenters as a liberation after years of intimidation under Milosevic. But it is ironically clear in the final moments that this final liberation is only another betrayal.

What also becomes clear is that those who lose most are the small people, the petit-bourgeoisie who ignored the larger picture in favour of their narrow self-interest. The middle-class characters who dissent and protest the growing fascism in their community, though scarred in obvious ways, manage to retain their self-respect; those who aggressively grab power and cash, like the captain who is building himself a new house out of war-profiteering, or the amoral folk singer/celebrity Shana (Larissa Gallagher) who switches to whatever bandwagon happens to be winning, also survive. In the bleakly riven society Milutinovic describes, the powerless who assent to fascistic authority with an eye to their own survival emerge as the most lost.

Chris Bendall's production is a good, honest presentation of the play with a high component of sheer entertainment. It features terrific singing, with a soundtrack by Philip McLeod of some bizarre Eurotrash folk music, in itself a sardonic comment on nationalistic propaganda. The scenes move swiftly and with great energy, capably managing the complex emotional twists of the writing, from comedy to violent tragedy, with no sense of false steps.

The production features an excellent set by Peter Corrigan: three trestles painted red which can be rearranged flexibly and quickly into a series of playing spaces on different levels. The back half of the Theatreworks stage is cut off by a huge black curtain, from which stage hands wearing pig masks - sinister images of the growing anonymous bestiality of society - emerge to rearrange the space. The design and lighting permit a theatrical spareness which focuses on an ensemble of excellent performances: in particular Laura Lattuada as Mila, the flaky but irrepressible aunt; Sergio Tell as Branko, the corrupt town official who betrays his activist sister to the authorities; and Simon Kingsley Hall as Bane, the drug-dealing son who, despite escaping national service, ends up as an emotional cripple.

This is far from didactic theatre, but it is a powerful political work. Milutinovic exposes, without a trace of sentiment but with a great deal of compassion for all the characters he portrays, the predatory nature of a society in which relationships are compromised and destroyed by mutual mistrust and fear. It's a timely reminder of Primo Levi's warning that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Phaedra's Love

Phaedra's Love by Sarah Kane, directed by Julie Waddington, design Julie Waddington and Luke Hails, sound by Nicholas Albanis. With Ben Noble, Georgina Capper, Fabienne Parr, Peter Roberts, Nick Austin, Pablo Calero, Alison Boyce, Jacinta Perry and Keira Lyons. Abstract Chaos with Instorage at the Store Room, until November 21.

Sarah Kane is the most exciting British playwright to emerge in the past decade. Her work was long overshadowed by the tabloid frenzy sparked by the 1995 production of her first play, Blasted, notoriously greeted as the product of a "sick" mind by a succession of rabidly foaming reviewers. The Daily Mail's Jack Tinker memorably labelled it a "disgusting feast of filth".

In common with many English-language writers treated without honour in their own countries (Samuel Beckett, Edward Bond, Howard Barker), European theatre was quick to recognise Kane's significance and welcomed Blasted as one of the most important plays of the 1990s. Critical opinion in Britain began to turn in 1998 with the premiere of Crave, but her suicide the following year made her the poete maudite of her generation. After her suicide, Kane's plays - like Sylvia Plath's poetry, and to their equal detriment - were mostly read as autobiographical expressions which foreshadowed her untimely death. As much as the claim that she wrote to shock for shock's sake, this romanticised notion obscured her uncompromising theatrical innovation.

In Australia, despite her steadily growing international reputation, Kane's work is still the province of the "fringe". She has been staged by theatres like Brisbane's La Boite and Sydney's New Theatre or the Stables, or by small independent theatre companies in Melbourne. I mean no disrespect to independent companies when I say that it's a shameful reflection on Australian theatre that one of the most important contemporary playwrights in the English language is unable to get a gig on a major stage.

Kane was one of a post-Thatcher generation of playwrights which emerged in the 1990s and challenged the pedagogic "theatre of journalism" exemplified most notably by David Hare. Many of them looked to playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp, or to Howard Barker's "theatre of catastrophe", as animating inspirations. As Kane's work evolved, her plays successively attacked the notion of theatrical naturalism in a distinctively visceral way. The revulsion and shock her plays invoke is never gratuitous, but is intended to provoke a re-evaluation of reality.

Although these playwrights were called the Nihilists or the New Brutalists, Kane's vision is far from nihilistic. It exposes a moral universe in which, as Hamlet says, "there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so", and searches uncompromisingly for an ethics which can survive the violence of our contemporary world. But even 4:48 Psychosis, her final, excoriatingly beautiful masterpiece, finishes with a fragmentary but stubborn hope that should not be dimmed by her subsequent suicide.

Abstract Chaos' production of Kane's second play, Phaedra's Love, is an uncertain rendering of Kane's work, but worth seeing nevertheless. The night begins promisingly, but by the end has fallen off the unforgiving tightrope that Kane sets up with such deceptively simple assurance. It exemplifies the kind of difficulties - lack of resources, lack of time - faced by independent theatre productions. I should add that some of its problems may resolve as the season progresses.

Phaedra's Love is Kane's take on Seneca's and Euripides' tragedies Hippolytus, which tell the legend of Phaedra, the wife of Theseus. She is cursed by Aphrodite and falls desperately in love with her stepson, the beautiful and chaste youth Hippolytus, with catastrophic results. It is most famously adapted by Racine in his play Phaedre, which is written in what are allegedly (I have to take George Steiner's word for it) sublimely beautiful alexandrines.

Kane's take couldn't be more iconoclastic, although it still has traces of the naturalism which she afterwards abandoned altogether. Phaedra's Love is the most darkly funny of her plays and is also the first which explores the nature of love, a theme that became the major obsession of the later work. Here she perverts Phaedra's tragedy to create what is at once a chilling vision of the nature of obsessive love, and a strange liberation from despair.

In Phaedra's Love, Hippolytus (Ben Noble) is very far from being the chaste and beautiful youth of the original story. He is physically and emotionally repugnant, seen in the opening scene watching tv while wanking into a sock. (He checks that he hasn't blown his nose in it first). Phaedra's (Georgina Capper) fatal passion for him is therefore inscrutable and terrifying; when she declares her love, in a scene of skin-crawling humiliation, she performs oral sex on him while he watches television and snacks indifferently from a bag of lollies.

Yet in his monstrous boredom, his disgust with the falsity of everything that surrounds him, Hippolytus is also a curiously attractive character. Behind his joylessness and refusal of any human contact lies a desire for absolute honesty, a ruthless integrity which will have no truck with a world that disgusts him. The only time he shows anything like wonder is after he hears of Phaedra's suicide: "She really did love me... Bless her." And it becomes clear that Phaedra's accusation of rape against him is not the act of revenge that it appears to be, but a gift: the orgy of violence which follows is, at last, a real moment, in which there is no trace of human deceit. Hence his final words: "If there could have been more moments like this."

Phaedra's suicide is the logical result of the fire which has so consumed her, her abnegation the utter loss of self which is, as Kane perceived, tragically attracted to its opposite, the self that will compromise nothing. The gravity exerted by these extremes detroys everything around them - Phaedra's daughter Strophe (Fabianne Parr) is raped and murdered by Theseus (Peter Roberts) in the final carnage. But Kane's humour here is wicked: the murders of the Royal family are represented as a barbecue, with Hippolytus' genitals becoming a gruesome sausage.

Kane's grand guignol violence contains a serious critique, of classical theatre as much as of the nature of human love and the dilemma of the self. It's in eight tautly written scenes, which move rapidly to its horrifying and obscenely funny conclusion. Unfortunately, Julie Waddington's direction seldom matches the icy clarity of the text, so nothing is ever quite in focus.

Stylised acting at the pitch this play demands requires a depth of polish that the standard four weeks' rehearsal simply cannot achieve with any certainty. Georgina Capper's performance as Phaedra is the most successful in negotiating the challenges of the play's stylistic formality, and has some genuinely thrilling moments. Ben Noble's Hippolytus achieves his character's grossness, but falters at the extremity of his despair and so cannot reveal his perverse nobility. I had the feeling that often the other performances were hesitant or even, at times, without conviction. This means that the final scene has all the faults of stage violence when it doesn't work: despite the liberal application of tomato sauce it merely looks fake, and the audience laughs for the wrong reasons.

I thought the set design a major problem in this production. Admittedly, Kane wrote with a fine disregard for the difficulties of designers: at one point Phaedra's body is meant to be set on fire, which defeated the ingenuity of this production team. At times, however, the set literally gets in the way of seeing the action, and the pace is hindered by cumbersome moveable blocks which are rearranged between scenes. The set changes impede the flow of the tragedy, stilting its emotional movement so it achieves neither apotheoses of horror nor comedy. Despite these reservations, it's a rare chance to see - if through a glass darkly - a fascinating work by a major contemporary dramatist.

The Store Room
Sarah Kane

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Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Mysterium by Sam Sejavka, directed by Lynne Ellis, designed by Marc Raszewski. With Lisa Tilley, Dije Arlen, Francis McMahon and Mark E. Lawrence. La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse until November 13.

Sam Sejavka has long inhabited one of the more interesting outcrops of Melbourne's theatrical landscape. He lives in a gravitationally-challenged castle way past the suburbs, behind dripping forests and gloomy cliffs and hand-painted signs saying "This Way to the Sinister Laboratory" and "Beware of the Were Wolf".

In short: if it's not quite compulsory to wear low-cut nighties or long opera cloaks to Sejavka's plays, it probably ought to be. He is our resident rock Goth, whose baroque imagination is unchastened by obeisance to anything so banal as credible reality. In Mysterium, he fills his cauldron with allusions from Moby-Dick, alchemical and mystic texts, Romantic poetry and long-forgotten theories on homunculi, and stirs up some unashamedly theatrical magic.

Mysterium explores the life force of erotic passion and how its repression in mystic religion, scientific rationalism or materialistic greed manifests ultimately as an urge to destroy life itself. Such is the energy and lyrical excess of the writing that I had no trouble putting ordinary rationality away and following this strange parable about the primal origins of life to its incredible (I use the word advisedly) conclusion. Two hours seemed to pass in the twinkling of a mad scientist's eye.

Sejavka has drawn on the allegorical structures of mediaeval mystery plays but, unlike those nameless authors, he is not concerned with clear moral instruction. Several strange characters, representing various aspects of human nature, are becalmed on a ship, suspended above an abyss in the ocean. They are the "natural philosopher" or scientist, Haeckel (Francis McMahon); Hepsiba, a high priestess of a cult which worships a primordial Goddess (Dije Arlen); Hepsiba's sidekick Praxi (Lynne Ellis); the captain of the ship Ratbone (Mark E. Lawrence); and a young, lubricious girl called Nectar (Lisa Tilley).

Mysterium is unconcerned with how these characters come to be where they are; this play signally depends on the audience entering a "willing suspension of disbelief" and accepting without question a Coleridgean universe where an inauspicously shot albatross means that the ship is crewed with shadows. It is pure imagination at play, art displaying its artifice. The play's dramatic drive might be anarchic and erotic, but its dress is that of a dandy: elegantly and decadently esoteric.

Such a play needs a beautiful set, and Marc Raszewski's design is most certainly that. It's the best I've seen in the Courthouse, which is notoriously difficult: theatre often looks makeshift there, as if it happens despite the space. But for Mysterium, Raszewski puts the Courthouse's cavernous height and awkward proportions to excellent use.

A line of wooden pews slashes obliquely across the playing space, signalling the deck's railings; on the far side is the sea, which generates a fair bit of smoke and blue light. To the left, racks of antique wooden specimen draws stack up to the ceiling, among a detritus of arcane objects (a bird cage with a skeleton in it, a display case for an egg, and so on). On the other side, a ladder leads up to a small alcove, which is often used as a playing space. Centre stage is a tall mast with a rope ladder. With Dori Dragon Bicchieri's sensuous lighting design, the theatre creates the sense at once of a sailing ship and a 19th century museum.

Lynne Ellis directs the play around and above the audience, as much as before it, taking full advantage of Raszewski's set. And she draws performances from her cast that match the extremities of the writing, which requires them to teeter on the edge of parody without ever losing emotional veracity. It's not an easy balance to strike, but all the actors manage to achieve the kind of intensities - erotic, manic, obsessive - that their characters demand, without falling into the merely ridiculous. This is a question of excess: linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, this play is excessive, and it demands excessive interpretations from its performers. And excess - intelligently judged excess, aware of itself as comic but still, in its frivolity, deeply serious - is what it gets.

The sensibility of Mysterium is pure Camp, even to its impeccable lineage (Gothic literature, mediaeval mystic arcana, 19th century trash novels). Susan Sontag's 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, defines Camp as the aesthetic sensibility which values artifice and a "proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naive". One thing Camp does, according to Sontag, is to propose a more complex relationship with "the serious": Camp "can be serious about the frivolous, and frivolous about the serious". Camp is esoteric, extravagant, and the antithesis of tragic. And Camp is, naturally, inescapably theatrical.

"One is drawn to Camp," says Sontag, "when one realises that 'sincerity' is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness". She's perfectly correct. Mysterium is, in fact, the perfect antidote to Howard's narrow Australia. Get out your opera cloaks, and get down there.

Picture: Francis McMahon in Mysterium

La Mama Theatre
Sam Sejavka

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Monday, October 25, 2004

The Conquest of the South Pole

The Conquest of the South Pole by Manfred Karge, directed by Todd Macdonald, designed by Luke Pither. Performed by Paul Denny, Damien Donovan, Josh Hewitt, James Saunders, Anita Hegh, Julie Eckersley, Mark Hennessy. Instorage at The Store Room, until October 31.

Good theatre writing often has an air of indestructibility, as if it could survive almost anything. I recently saw a school production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children which traversed all the categories of naive acting, from sheer raw talent to squeaks of stage fright: Brecht survived the lot. It's even possible that in some ways the rough treatment made the language shine more brightly, like a stone in a polisher.

The Conquest of the South Pole is tough theatrical poetry at its best. From the moment it begins, the language picks you up by the scruff of the neck and drags you head-first into the play. This is because Manfred Karge is part of a Brechtian tradition of theatre which has not divorced itself, as has most English-language theatre, from the living traditions of poetry. Brecht is as great a poet as he is a playwright and, in Germany at least, his poetic legacy is as strong as his political influence.

Like his colleague Heiner Muller, Manfred Karge is a product of the Berliner Ensemble, the company Brecht and Helene Weigel began in 1949 and which has negotiated many changes, including the chaos of reunification. Karge began at the Berliner Ensemble as a young director in the 1970s, when Germany was still divided, and he still works there. He places himself squarely in the Brechtian tradition of political critique: it's a dialectic position perhaps best exemplified by Muller, who was at once Brecht's most loyal heir and fiercest critic.

The poetic in Karge's play is immediate, a lyrical attention to rhythm and sound and repetition which roots itself firmly in the vitality of vernacular language. This is much more than a decorative effect: as its first English translators, Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivis, said: "Much of the vocabulary in The Conquest of the South Pole would not appear in a standard German dictionary. ... Often, the characters' attempts to hold on to their individuality is expressed in wordplay, or through references beyond their immediate experience: myth, fairytale, historical event or quotation." Which is to say, the poetry itself is a means of resistance and recuperation against impersonal historical or economic forces.

The Conquest of the South Pole was written in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and concerns itself with the soul-eroding problems of endemic unemployment. The play is about four young men in a small German town, who stave off the despair of joblessness by re-enacting Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole in an attic. It's a kind of kitchen sink epic; except by implication, there are no structural attacks on capitalism, and it is set wholly in a claustrophobic domestic sphere.

When Slupianek (Paul Denny) and his two mates Buscher (Damien Donovan) and Braukmann (James Saunders) come home to find their friend Seiffert (Josh Hewitt) about to hang himself, Slupianek proposes a "fairy tale" as an antidote to the rhythm of "pinball and schnapps" that is slowly killing them: Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole.

And thus begins a heroic journey, both Amundsen's (as read from a book) and that of the young men and their friends. The polar ice becomes a metaphor for their struggle against a pitiless system which leaves them, despite their desperate desire to work, both without a job, and carrying the blame for their own unemployment. Slupianek's appropriation of Amundsen's triumph over the South Pole is his means of recuperating his dignity.

This is not, however, merely a story of triumph and hope through imaginative resource, but a rather more complex fable of resistance and inevitable failure. Buscher, the realist to Slupianek's idealist, rebels against Slupianek's leadership, claiming that the real metaphor for their situation is Shackleton's disastrous expedition:

"It's not triumphs we need to act out, friends, not triumphs," he says. "We do failures better, they're our staple diet. Every trip to the job centre is a failure. Every phone call about a job ad is a failure. Opening so many doors you polish the knobs. Every refusal a failure...Human beings are just one big failure. And so the failure must go on and on for ever and ever, a hundred times, a thousand times, until we're all sick to death. It's only when you're up to your eyes in shit, desperately gasping for air, and the thinnest current of air is getting thinner and thinner, when you're really on your last legs, then the vomit might rise so high in your throat that you lash out mercilessly in all directions. Then, Slupianek, we wouldn't just be shooting a few dogs..."

As Buscher recognises, an imaginary triumph remains, after all, only imaginary. Once the South Pole is conquered, it's still the South Pole. These young men remain lost in the wastelands of the dole office or their dead-end jobs; whether employed or unemployed, they are still victims of their lowly status in the economic food chain in a blindly consumerist society. Braukmann's wife (Anita Hegh), speaking of her day at work in a fish and chip shop, observes: "People go on guzzling. They moan, but they keep on guzzling...They're chockful of misery, and choking as they guzzle...The smoke from the stall gets in my eyes, gets in my lungs, and even gets in my heart."

Under Todd Macdonald's clear and precise direction, the play rings loud and true. Luke Pither's design reverses the claustrophobic space of the Store Room, so the audience enters the theatre through a small room strewn with the detritus of depressive living - take away containers, a flickering television, empty bottles of beer - where the actors are lounging aimlessly. The stage itself is a stylised ice floe, which transforms into an attic or a kitchen as the play slides between different realities.

However, the emphasis of this production falls, rightly I think, on the writing and performances. Macdonald has cast well, and makes the most of it. Paul Denny plays the charismatic Slupianek with an increasing poignancy and despair, giving the performance of the night: but the text is well served by everyone in the production. Perhaps it's as true to say that the actors are well-served by the script; its linguistic demands give them, perversely, a chance to explore some emotional freedoms. It's a play rarely done here - to my knowledge, it was last done around 15 years ago at Belvoir Street - and it is well worth the revisiting. Karge's restless questions are as pertinent now, in our restructured days of casual, insecure employment, as they were in 1980s West Germany or Thatcher's Britain.

Picture: Paul Denny, Damien Donovan, Josh Hewitt and James Saunders in The Conquest of the South Pole

The Store Room

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

MIAF: The Beggar's Opera and The Return of Ulysses

Melbourne International Arts Festival: The Busker's Opera, directed by Robert Lepage. Music composed, arranged and performed by Frederike Bedard, Martin Belanger, Julie Fainer, Claire Gignac, Frederic Lebrasseur, Veronika Makdissi-Warren, Kevin McCoy, Steve Normandin, Marco Poulin and Jean Rene. Dramaturge Kevin McCoy. Ex Machina. The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi, directed by William Kentridge, puppets by Adrian Kohler and Handspring Puppet Company, music performed by Ricercar Consort. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.

There are times when the blindingly obvious clambers over the event horizon of my mind and gives a big friendly "hoy!" Such a moment occurred somewhere in the middle of The Busker's Opera, Robert Lepage's exuberant, sexy, vulgar take on John Gay's 18th century The Beggar's Opera. I thought, oh gosh (or expletives to that effect): opera's just a bunch of songs that tell a story.

The story, it must be confessed, doesn't make a lot of sense. But as John Gay himself wrote, "you must allow that in this kind of drama 'tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about". In The Busker's Opera, unlike the original, the over-wived Macheath is actually executed (by lethal injection), although he takes off his orange suit straight afterwards and comes and sings in the epilogue of how "the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow". And thus death shall have no dominion. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure why he was condemned to death in the first place, although it seemed to have something to do with his getting rather friendly with a soprano in a silver dress on top of a piano.

I hesitate to call The Busker's Opera an adaptation of Gay's piece. It is more a kind of merry pillage: Lepage appears to have simply filleted out the songs and then has given them to the cast and musicians, who set them in a bracingly various set of styles, ranging from rock to hiphop to 17th century baroque, and perform them with all the rough vitality of street performers. He uses almost no dialogue and none, that I could see, from The Beggar's Opera. But I do think it's entirely in the spirit of the original.

Gay's opera opens with a dialogue between a Beggar (who has written the opera) and a Player, who discuss the piece we are about to see. Similarly, Lepage opens with a conversation between a Busker, who for the purposes of the show has authored the piece, and an Agent. It then swings, like Gay, into a nonsensical story about various exotic lowlifes, including "a prison scene, which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic".

But there, more or less, the similarities end. Lepage himself claims the opera is a tilt against corporatisation, or in particular, the "Weill corporation", which cancelled his production of Brecht's Threepenny Opera (Brecht's own take on Gay). It's hard to see anything so grandiose as a critique of corporatisation in the sketchy narrative of sleaze in the music business which follows, but there are certainly a couple of fingers up to the Weill family.

Lepage seems to have decided to out-Brecht Brecht, but it is fair to say that he lacks Brecht's political perspicacity. Nevertheless, his direction possesses considerable wit and style, and attains the kind of simplicity which only comes with a great deal of thought and money. The stage is divided into two main areas: backstage, where are the musicians and instruments, and the forestage, where performers come forward to do their numbers and scenes. A huge flatscreen video is moved around the stage by some complicated mechanics. It provides all the lyrics and scene details, a la Brecht, occasional live footage and various complementary images.

What makes the two hours fly is the high-octane performances by a wonderful ensemble cast, which give the production both the roughness and skill it needs. It's like a rather beautiful rock concert, or a mutated, overblown cabaret. Lepage also has the absolute gift of Gay's tough lyrics, which somehow make the transition to contemporary rock or blues as if they absolutely belong there. Perhaps this makes perfect sense. Gay's opera, after all, contained no original music, for all the songs were set to popular airs of the period; and if they are sung here in another mode, it is still a mode all their own.

I had a fabulous time. So, judging by the cheers, did a lot of other people, although by the end I was surrounded by a sea of empty chairs. I was wearing my most delicious - in my fact, my only - perfume, so I really don't think I smelt that bad. It must have been the opera. There is a rather undergraduate statement on the program that warns hopefully: "this opera may offend everybody". Frankly, I was surprised that it offended anybody, but I assume that it must have.

I had a different kind of fabulous time at The Return of Ulysses. This is the kind of art which makes profound connections below the level of everyday consciousness. The effect is rather like being ambushed: it liberates feelings at some primeval strata of thought, and then, while you're innocently enjoying some exquisite music, they sneak up behind and pole-axe you with your own unsuspected emotion.

This is, to digress for a moment, an experience I always associate with beauty: a word which is abused to meaninglessness but which nevertheless means something to me. The idea of beauty often exercises poets, as it mercilessly exposes the inadequacy of words in attempting to communicate states of extreme subjectivity. Despite this difficulty, in my novella Navigatio I attempted to analyse what my experience of it is:

" is nothing, sang Rilke, but this terrifying beginning... The terror of beauty is that everything is beautiful. It is the chaotic self, the chaotic body, the chaotic world, fragmentary, diffuse, unassigned to meaning, against which form, an aesthetic armour, a self by which we understand our given selves, defends itself from the chaos within and without it. And yet art contains the terror of obliteration, which inhabits the centre of beauty. It admits the reality of death, of human finitude and failure, it admits that the world is not us and that we do not control it. This admission is love: the voluntary renunciation of self-tyranny, the ascension to the place of ordinary beauty, which redeems nothing."

The Return of Ulysses, which is directed by the extraordinary South African visual artist William Kentridge, seemed to me to be dealing very directly with this idea of beauty. It is a production which is multiple at every level; I would have liked to have seen it at least once more, in order to absorb more of its complexities. Yet one of its achievements is that what is really a very complicated event is given an air of illusory simplicity.

It is a co-production between the South African group Handspring Puppets, with whom Kentridge has had an on-going collaboration, and the Belgian ensemble Ricercar Consort. The story of Ulysses' return home to Ithaca and his reuniting with Penelope and Telemachus (after the slaughter of all his rivals) is told simply in Monteverdi's baroque opera, here cut to half its normal length by Philippe Pierlot and scored for a viola da gamba trio and plucked instruments such as the harp, theorbo and guitar. Pierlot's adaptation creates a work of great clarity and poignancy, performed to great emotional effect by an extremely accomplished cast of singers.

From the opera, the production builds up in two main layers: the puppets, which are manipulated by the singers as well as the animators, and Kentridge's own animated drawings, which are projected onto the back of the stage. Adrian Kohler's expressive puppets are almost life-size, and hand carved from wood. They are operated bunraku style, with the manipulators visible to the audience. I am always fascinated by how, in the hands of master puppeteers, this artifice isolates human gesture and endows it with feeling in ways that can't be achieved by actors. Anime masters like Miyazake can manage exactly the same thing: a schematically drawn cartoon of a child can be utterly convincing if its movement is meticulously accurate.

The puppets follow a simultaneous double narration: firstly a literal illustrating of the opera; and secondly a man, represented by a second, identical Ulysses, dying in his bed in hospital. These stories intertwine with the much more abstract narration which is unfolding on the screen backstage. It's hard to describe the impact of Kentridge's allusive, transformative animation, which is hand-drawn in charcoal using an austere palette of greys and browns. The images are incredibly various, and include sonar scans of the body, x-rays, video footage of water or heart operations, landscapes which transform from ancient Greece to bleak visions of contemporary South Africa, or lushly sensual flowers and vines. The images circle a constant refrain of death, decay and regeneration, metamorphising liquidly from one state to another with a dynamic which is disturbingly erotic.

The whole is brought together on a stage which is shaped like a lecture theatre, the musicians seated around in a half circle while the action flows before and behind them. It is lit by a rich play of Rembrandtian colours that highlight the nuances of the woods of the instruments and puppets. The opening scene, in which the gods discuss Ulysses' fate and mortal frailty, is in fact modelled on Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. The singers and manipulators gather around the prone body of the second Ulysses, and introduce the tenor of this production. It is in fact a memento mori, a theatrical version of those mediaeval images which urged people to remember that they, too, would die. In contemporary contexts, the capricious figures of the gods become the equally mysterious workings of the interior of the human body: an angiogram of a heart attack, for example, is the equivalent of Zeus' thunderbolts.

With such a subtle and multifarious work, it is hard to trace the motion of action and effect; it works cumulatively and patiently at levels which are often subconscious. At the end, the death of the hospitalised Ulysses, which occurred while the other puppet was enjoying a rapturous reunion with his long lost wife Penelope, was unexpectedly devastating. I found myself suddenly and embarassingly in tears. I suppose I was crying for myself. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to a young girl grieving for the dead leaves of autumn, "It is the fate that man was born for. / It is Margaret you mourn for."

Melbourne International Arts Festival

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

MIAF: Via Dolorosa

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Via Dolorosa, written and performed by David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry, Athenaeum Theatre.

I had a number of difficulties with David Hare's Via Dolorosa, but a principle problem was that I became bored. About half an hour before Sir David ended his whistle-stop tour of Israel and Palestine, I was obsessively longing for a coffee. With renewed alertness, I noted that he had reached his last interview; perhaps that was it. No, he had to get on the plane. And off the plane. And catch the train from Gatwick to Victoria. And then a Black Cab. A couple of flashback quotes... And then turn right, and right again... His dog, of course. The front door. A final, telling reflection...

Well, that coffee was pretty damn good by the time I got to it. I wondered if my coffee compulsion was a kind of Pavlovian response: I like caffeine with my Sunday newspaper. What I was listening to was the kind of thing that is published on weekends in quality English broadsheets (Via Dolorosa was, in fact, excerpted in The Guardian): erudite, intelligent, self aware, sceptical, leavened with an ironic if empathetic eye and a deprecating wit. Quintessentially English liberal bourgeois. Bourgeois that knows it's bourgeois, dammit; hence the deprecation.

Via Dolorosa recounts a visit to Israel that Hare made in 1997, when his play, Amy's View, was presented in Tel Aviv. His visit was also prompted by deeper reasons: as he says, "It is only now... that I realise, almost without noticing, that for some time my subject as a playwright has been faith. My subject is belief. And so it comes to seem appropriate - no, more than that, it comes to seem urgent - that the 50-year-old British playwright should finally visit the 50-year-old state."

What follows is a series of encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, mostly prominent people: religious Jewish settlers in Gaza; the respected head of the Palestinian Red Crescent, Haider Abdel Shafi; Menachem Begin's right wing son, Benni Begin; the Palestinian historian Albert Aghazerin; the theatre director George Ibrahim and poet Hussein Barghouti. These conversations are noted with painstaking even-handedness, and recounted with the deft lightness of a practised raconteur. And they are interesting in their own right, revealing some of the intractable, tangled contradictions that underly the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The sort of thing, as I said, which one might read with interest and attention in a broadsheet newspaper, and argue about afterwards.

A big problem with a play like this is that it dates quickly: I suspect it has lost a lot of punch by its inevitable assumption of the glaze of history. It was first performed in 1998, and the situation in the Middle East since then has grown immeasurably worse. What Hare describes seems, in comparison, almost a kind of idyll: this was when Ramallah had a "cheerful air", before it was bulldozed by the IDF.

Wisely, Hare does not attempt to act; he merely stands and speaks, assisted only by a couple of minimal lighting changes and one bizarrely kitsch moment when his visit to the Temple Mount summons a luminous gold model of the Mount to float in the dark space at the back of the stage. These things seem mere gestures towards theatre, a kind of dressing to assure us that this is, indeed, a play. I am not usually given to categorical assertions, but I was not convinced that it was a play at all.

I don't mean to limit what theatre can be to the spectacle, and personally I have a fatal attraction to the kind of show which features a spotlight, a performer and a harrowing script. Walking into the Athenaeum and seeing the naked stage bathed in a bluish light, a table with a glass of water set forestage, I thought I might be in for my sort of night. Instead, I came out with a feeling that I had just witnessed something that was tantamount to a kind of artistic death.

What David Hare presented was not anti-theatre: the Temple Mount moment exploded any sense of such a stern aesthetic. It was more a kind of un-theatre. I was more troubled by it than I expected, and not for any of the obvious reasons. It seems to me that Hare's insistence on "witness" and "reportage" is symptomatic of a wider contemporary crisis in art; ironically, given Hare's stated subject, of a loss of faith in art itself.

According to Hare, Via Dolorosa is primarily a vehicle for "enlightenment": "In fact, what I'm doing with Via Dolorosa is trying to pull theatre back to a fact-based theatre where the audience knows more when they leave than when they went in," he explains in an interview. This jostles uneasily with his disclaimer elsewhere that "theatre doesn’t work like journalism, and the suggestion that it is a form of journalism is untrue". It is hard to see that Via Dolorosa is anything but journalism, although that need not be a sneer - journalism, after all, includes writers like Martha Gellhorn and Ryszard Kapuschinski. But Hare's stated intention does beg the question: if I want some understanding of the Middle East, why am I not better off reading the reports of Robert Fisk or Juan Cole's analysis? Why would I want to go to a play?

Hare has not always been averse to making things up, although he comes out of the left wing British theatre of the 1970s and he was one of the pioneers of documentary theatre in his work with Joint Stock. His brand of politically committed work, rooted in actuality, has continued to be massively influential. Documentary theatre is currently the dominant vehicle for political dissent in British theatre; Hare's most recent play about the Iraq war, Stuff Happens, is now on in London.

Like his contemporaries Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths, Hare stands squarely in a broad tradition of British left wing activism which goes all the way back to before the Fabians. It's a tradition often fatally marked by the earnest belief that, with enough work, enough commitment, enough care, enough education, enough Reason, Progress will prevail. "But what is the way forward?" Hare kept asking his interviewees, with increasing plaintiveness. With the benefit of hindsight - this play was first performed in 1998 - it is clear that there has been no way forward, just an intractable locking in of conflict and bloodshed between two sides which are themselves riven by deep divisions. Hare's own Via Dolorosa is, of course, his discovery of the inadequacy of secular reason in the face of the apocalyptically irrational.

One of the ironies of Via Dolorosa is that, for all Hare's stated objectives of presenting "facts" and removing his mediating presence as author to permit his interviewees to speak for themselves, it is, in the end, a work about David Hare. But it is a Hare so conscious of his desire to be even-handed and of his status as an outsider that he speaks in chains, leaping in alarm when he dares to entertain a thought. I agree with Hare on the unimportance of opinion, but the aesthetic and morality of any artwork is much more than mere opinion. One wonders, tangentially, at what point fair-mindedness becomes moral vacillation.

Hare is scrupulously factual, working from his belief that his job is primarily to inform his audience of things they should know, in order to form a rounded moral view of the world. "Give us the facts, just the facts," he says, of a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Via Dolorosa, remarking that the art works there strike falsely in relation to the actual evidence of atrocity. It is a watered down version of Adorno's famous statement that, after Auschwitz, it is no longer possible to write lyric poetry. But unlike Adorno, who, with Hare, is speaking of the impossibility of representation in the face of atrocity, Hare's argument is full of sly libels against imagination itself.

In an interview on Via Dolorosa, Hare says: "Well, let's say it's the Jewish tradition that knowledge is as important as imagination. And so in some way I think its true that Jews traditionally distrust fiction. In other words, why make up stories when the world is already incredibly various and interesting?" Aside from the leap Hare makes from knowledge being as important as imagination to its being markedly less important, his sweeping statement about the Jewish distrust of fiction seems a little tough on writers like Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Andre Schwartz-Bart or Elias Canetti.

Of course, any artist can't but be aware of the essential inadequacy of art in the face of intractable experience. The political place and force of culture was one of the principle questions of the 20th century, and has perplexed much sharper minds than mine. But given art's inability to justify itself, I still wonder what point there is in making works that eschew imagination, why it is necessary to deny the complex truths that only art can communicate, as if this is the only way to restore to it an authenticity and authority to speak. It seems to me that any authenticity it gains is very often grounded in spurious perceptions, as hoaxes such as the recent Norma Khouri scandal have shown. And such supposed authenticity comes at a high cost. To deny human imagination seems a shackling of the one freedom that art can authentically offer, a capitulation in advance to the circumscribing forces of industrialised culture.

Which brings me back to my initial boredom. This is the kind of theatre people tend to like because it's recognisable and predictable: it's written in a form that is instantly familiar and challenges nothing about our processes of perception and understanding. But formal imagination is a huge part of the politics of representation, an issue Hare discusses to some extent in his work, and limiting theatre to the ethics and aesthetics of journalism is a profoundly political - and, I would say, ultimately conservative - decision. My reactions to Via Dolorosa made me think of another one-man show I saw a couple of weeks ago by a writer who was unashamedly a journalist - The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus. Although it is almost a century older than Hare's play, it has the political bite, immediate relevance and experiential profundity that only imagination can confer. As Ezra Pound said of poetry, art is news that stays news.

Via Dolorosa
National Theatre: Platform Papers
To Each His Via Dolorosa, Al-Ahram
PBS interview
Arnold Wesker's open letter to David Hare

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Monday, October 11, 2004

MIAF: Alladeen and Failing Kansas

Melbourne International Arts Festival: Alladeen, The Builders Association and motiroti. Directed by Marianne Weems, conceived by Keith Khan, Marianne Weems and Ali Zaidi; performed by Rizwan Mirza, Heaven Phillips, Tanya Selvaratnam, Jamine Simhalan, Jeff Webster. Failing Kansas, conceived, performed and directed by Mikel Rouse, film footage by Cliff Baldwin.

These days most of us move between real and virtual spaces without thinking about it much. We have become used to the intimate spectacle of atrocities which are beamed instantly into our living rooms, the multiple identities we assign ourselves in phonespeak and cyberspace, the hyper-saturation of media images and the seductions of celebrity culture. Consciously or not, we swim through a flux of unsatisfied desire that lives in the eye rather than the tangibility of smell and touch; a desire which, if it is not precisely disembodied, is fragmented and displaced, and so becomes both more potent and more dangerous.

Such ways of being can create a desolating dislocation, and Alladeen, a spectacular multimedia work which explores the decentralised world of call centres, leaves a disturbing aftertaste. While it forthrightly explores the technological mechanisms of contemporary colonialism, it is by no means a technophobic show; Alladeen is at once celebratory and admonitory of our brave new wired-up world. But one of its most telling images is a woman dancing alone in a karaoke nightclub, talking to her absent lover on her mobile phone.

A collaboration between the New York-based The Builder's Association and the London company motiroti, Alladeen is itself a phenomenon of globalisation. The theatre piece is only one part of a triptych which includes a website ( and a music video. On the stage, the action moves between London, New York and Bangalore, between projected animations, documentary footage, live film and actors. Like all successful multimedia, it reveals and exploits the gap between the real power of theatre - the fleshly presence of actors and audience - and the potent, decontextualised image.

The informing metaphor is the story of Alladin, the poor boy who, through no fault of moral goodness, finds a genie and is transformed into a prince. It becomes a means of expressing the unsatisfied desire which drives consumer culture, but it also has more profound implications. Alladin, one of the most popular oriental fairytales, first appears in early translations of A Thousand and One Nights, but was not one of the original stories: it was inserted by a creative 17th century Frenchman. Alladin is one of the many narratives by which the Orient was culturally imagined and colonised by the West, a process Edward Said traced in his remarkable and necessary classic Orientalism.

Like Said, Alladeen does not take a monumental "clash of civilisations" approach to the question of Western colonisation, but instead is alert to the nuances of human beings as social animals, how cultural influences do not simply travel a vector of brute force, but are multiple and cross-pollinating. The documentary footage of call centre workers in Bangalore, for example, does not reveal a downtrodden third world population, but something rather more complex: a number of ambitious and energetic young people who are aware of the comedy inherent in their work, where they must take on a false persona and learn how to speak American. (They are given lectures on such cultural icons as Friends, and probably know more facts about Illinois than most people who live there).

None of this makes the ruthless eradication of any trace of "mother tongue" from Indian call centre workers less disturbing; success equates to becoming a kind of cultural ghost. And this disembodiment of identity is not confined to call centre workers: it is an aspect of the world we all inhabit now. Alladeen exposes the essential isolation of the age of communication, where human intimacy fractures on the bright, illusory surfaces of projected desires.

Failing Kansas is at the other end of the multimedia experience: rather than a stage saturated with so many images that it is impossible to know where to direct your eye, Mikel Rouse gives us a man, a backing tape and a screen of black and white images.

Failing Kansas is drawn from Truman Capote's masterly non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, a book generally credited with being an early harbinger of the New Journalism. Capote spent six years researching the apparently reasonless murder of the Clutter family, a wealthy Kansas wheat farmer, his wife and their two children, each killed by a shotgun blast to the forehead by two drifters, Perry Smith and Dick Hicock. The murderers stole forty dollars, a radio and a pair of binoculars.

The Clutter family, law-abiding church goers, could have stepped straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. No one, as local residents told police, didn't like the Clutters. Their murderers couldn't have come from a more different America. Hicock's family was stable but poor, and he had a background of petty crime. Perry's was broken and violent, and two of his siblings had committed suicide. Perry, more sensitive and more guilt-ridden than Hickock, was the focus of Capote's interest - he recognised that, but for the grace of God, it could have been him. At the time, his empathetic portrayal of Perry caused a scandal.

Mikel Rouse is not concerned to retell a story which anyone can go and read for themselves. Instead, he uses the book as an occasion for an extraordinary effusion of lyrical riffs which spring from a variety of sources: phrases in the book; songs by Perry himself; contemporary hymns; and fragments of poetry by Robert Service and Thomas Gray. He uses a technique he calls "counterpoetry", "the use of multiple pitched voices in strict metric counterpoint", to create live and pre-recorded layers of words and music. Dressed in a grey suit, standing in front of the mic, he delivers the songs in an obsessive sprachgesung, with a strange and oddly compelling physicality which owes more to rock than drama.

The staging is starkly simple: at the end of each aria, if I can call it that, the stage blacks out, Rouse moves to another microphone on the stage, the lights come up on him, and he begins again. The lighting is subtle and evocative, a palette of soft yellows and whites. Behind him, a grainy black and white film shows images of rural US towns, objects, photographs, news headlines, neon lights, beauty shows, cars and roads, people talking silently to the camera: a moving collage as repetitive and hypnotic in its own way as the endlessly iterated words.

The more words and phrases are repeated, the more detached they become from ordinary usages; it's a work in which meaning is located in texture, rhythm, nuance and context, rather than in the semantics of words. It is in this way a profoundly poetic experience. Rouse creates a claustrophobic, paranoid mindspace in which thoughts echo and jostle and repeat, as if we were witness to a vocalising of the junk in someone's brain. Failing Kansas is at once a lament, a meditation on hope and redemption and a portrayal of a savagely forlorn America. And it's absolutely riveting.
Melbourne International Arts Festival

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