Exit 2011Review: The Story of Mary MacLane by HerselfReview: The Economist, Cherry CherryReview previewBits and bobsReview: Ophelia Doesn't Live Here AnymoreMs A's Guide To Theatre EtiquetteReview: Little Match Girl, The Importance of Being EarnestReview: Return To EarthShop talkAway from my desk: and then back againNCP preamblingInterview: Paul GrabowskyArt and revolutionMelbourne Festival review: AviaryMelbourne Festival review: Hedda Gabler, The Rehearsal, Playing the DaneMelbourne Festival review: Double Think, Journeys of Love and More LoveMelbourne Festival review: Whiteley's Incredible Blue, Foley ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 30, 2011

Exit 2011

Was that 2011? I'm thinking of the Venerable Bede's story, in which one of King Edwin's thanes compares the life of a man (with the Anglo-Saxons it was always a man) to the swift flight of a sparrow through a banqueting hall on a dark winter's day. The past year has seemed the mere flip of a wing. Yet somehow I reviewed around 86 shows this year - quite a lot more than last year, when I reviewed 66, and almost as much as 2010, when I did 90. So much for my vows to cut down on theatre: the totting up of the books exposes my vain strivings, and reveals me for the hopeless addict I am.

Back to Back Theatre's Ganesh Vs The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby

Officially, 2011 can stand as the year my brain broke. I'm always a bit beat at this time of year, heaving up on the littorals like a storm-ravaged longship, but this December has been the full-on maritime disaster. The captain of my soul would have been advised to take a holiday mid-year, but instead pushed on, seeking ever receding deadlines, ever more strained metaphors. And lo! Something went pop. Ms TN is presently in convalescent mode, stubbornly ignoring the inconvenient tasks that scar my diary even now with the excuse that I will tackle them next year. But the obligatory end of year mop-up demands attention before 2011 vanishes altogether down the memory hole. So here it is: my top shows of 2011, with links to my reviews. It turns out there are 13, not 10, so triskaidekaphobics beware. Not all the best shows I saw were in Melbourne, either. I'm no good at round numbers or neat summaries.

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Review: The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself

It's tempting to consider what Mary MacLane's life might have been, had she been born male. For one thing, I might have had a better chance of having heard of her: the work of interesting women is all too apt to disappear after their deaths. Perhaps MacLane might have been known as an early 20th century Thomas Chatterton or Arthur Rimbaud, a wayward brilliance that ignited rebellion into a literary flame. But she wasn't born male, and her sex determined her life and her later reputation. It meant that she was doomed to being considered eccentric rather than original, and the egocentricity permissible in a young man of genius put MacLane beyond the pale of womanhood.

She was certainly scandalous: precociously intelligent, unapologetically sexual, Romantic with a startling capital R. Her best selling memoir The Story of Mary MacLane was published when she was 19, and sold 100,000 copies in its first month. In it she vividly recounted her desires, her boredom, her fantasies, and proclaimed herself as a genius. In 1902, this was unprecedented only in that it was a woman writing in such a way: Walt Whitman, clearly a foundational influence, first published Song of Myself in 1855. The real scandal was (and remains) that a woman should proclaim an autonomous self, an active subjectivity.

Such proclamations have always been made, and have been routinely diminished and ignored over the past few hundred years. Watching The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself, I was struck by how much her writing chimes with the writings of women mystics in the Middle Ages. Several years ago, I became deeply interested in these women, who invented a whole new vocabulary of subjective experience for western culture. The parallels with MacLane are intriguing.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Review: The Economist, Cherry Cherry

The great holiday guillotine has now slammed down across Ms TN's diary, and so last week I saw my last shows for the year. And then, in the way of the these things, I promptly came down with a cold. I blame Melbourne's increasingly absurd weather for this, as much as the exigencies of the end of the year: this city has always, admittedly, been proverbial for its changeability ("if you don't like Melbourne's weather, wait five minutes") but in the past month it's been pushing capriciousness to excess. I am thinking of investing in a porter to carry the galoshes, mac, heated gloves, snow goggles etc that are the essential accessories to any well-prepared Melbourne summer wardrobe. The stress of deciding what to wear has practically made me a slave to laudanum.

For all this, I managed to dress (even without a maid to secure my corsets) and saw three shows, all from independent companies (the last a co-production with the Malthouse, of which more in due course). I know I keep saying that diversity is the strength of our theatre culture, but I say so for good reason: it's difficult to think of three more different productions, in approach, intent and theme. If they had all been diversely bad, Ms TN's vapours might have become melodramatic, but the public was saved such tedious demonstrations. I also keep saying that if you like theatre, Melbourne is the place to be; and last week was a neat illustration of why.

I finally caught up with MKA, the new writer's theatre that opened in September last year and has continued at a blinding pace since, with punishing schedules of readings and productions, under the artistic directorship of the magnificently named Tobias Manderson-Galvin. Taking a leaf from the original Royal Court, its avowed intent is the development of plays through productions and readings, and it has been making waves all year through a series of temporary venues. The Economist, by Manderson-Galvin himself, was MKA's final show for 2011.

This production made waves of a different kind, as it is based on the case of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right wing extremist and racist who murdered 77 people in July this year. The play caused a brief tabloid sensation before it opened when Manderson-Galvin was pilloried for saying that Breivik was no more insane than John Howard. The far right is touchy about Breivik, for good reason: he justified his horrific crimes in a rambling manifesto that quoted some of our own rabid luminaries, and which rehearsed some very familiar rhetoric about the fall of the west, the rise of Islam, and the evils of "cultural Marxism" and feminism.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

Review preview

Ms TN seems unable to get her sentences together today, so let me briefly flag a couple of theatrical events that opened this week, both from Melbourne's thriving independent scene. Get thee hence to A is for Atlas's wholly charming Cherry Cherry (details here), which takes place in a private home in Thornbury and includes a delicious dinner, and MKA's wicked take on political delusion, The Economist (details here). Both close on December 10, so get booking.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bits and bobs

George Hunka at Superfluities Redux (whom I'm sure you all read religiously) blogs on the recurrent death of criticism, and in particular on the argument that its death sentence is signed by the new democratisation of the web. This is (sigh) an old and whiskery argument, but as George points out,"the real danger is in formalizing (the) informal process of inclusion and exclusion". It's an interesting read. As a bonus, check out some rare photos of Sarah Kane performing in Howard Barker's Victory.

Meanwhile, Katharine Brisbane delivered the Philip Parsons Memorial lecture over the weekend, giving an overview of four decades of Australian theatre. An extract is published in the Australian (free registration required). (Update: full text here.) As she says:

More people attend arts ventures than sport, according to polls. In 40 years it is a record of which we should be proud. And yet (with rare exceptions) the leaders of this industry are not influential in the way leaders of other professions are. A new play may be acclaimed but is rarely discussed as an insight into, or barometer of, our culture. Artists have become a collection of specialists for whom communication outside their art has become more difficult. The less they try to break through this barrier the more they are misunderstood. It seems that only for artists is the word elite a pejorative. In the sports world they are heroes.

Brisbane suggests this is the result of a demolition of a "culture of inclusion", which meant that theatre failed to take its audience with it. I suspect this problem might have more to do with the media than with audiences. Worth thinking about in tandem with George's post.

Lastly, for those who might be interested, I have idly started a new blog called Lost Poems. This came about because a week or so ago, in the interests of order, I plunged into the labyrinths of my computer and discovered a bunch of poems that I had completely forgotten about. What to do with them? A blog seemed like an excellent idea. From now I'll be posting one every few days, until I run out of poems.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Review: Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore

It's proverbial that there is a Hamlet for every century. As Jan Kott says, it's a play that absorbs its times. The Romantic era gave us a pale, introspective youth; the 20th century an animal trapped in the pitiless mechanisms of power. In the 21st century, the Prince of Denmark has become the random particle in a corrupted, dysfunctional and claustrophobic nuclear family.

Stripping the play of its larger politics reveals the powerlessness of its two women: Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his love object, Ophelia, are starkly shown to be male possessions, objects of exchange whose value rises and falls on their sexual conduct. Ophelia's own brother lectures her on keeping her virtue intact, as her virginity is a commodity by which her family honour and standing is measured. Her father is more explicit while ordering her to avoid Hamlet's wooing, when he tells her to "tender yourself more dearly". Gertrude's lubricity in marrying her husband's brother (and, unknowingly, his murderer) shortly after she is widowed is the ignition point of the whole play.

Female desire in Hamlet is dangerous, a threat to patriarchal authority. "Fear it, Ophelia, fear it!" Laertes says: but, as with all the other men in the play telling women how to manage their sexuality, it's his own fear that he expresses. It's the fear of this female desire, and most deeply, the fear of his own uncontrollable impulses, that leads to Hamlet's incestuous jealousy of his mother and his unconscionable cruelty towards Ophelia; and in the middle of it all, Ophelia, seeking only to be obedient to her father's and brother's will, is herself broken.

In Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Daniel Schlusser and his collaborators have picked up this subtext of perilous sexuality to create a work that is part installation, part dance, part performance, part music. An opera, a work, in the broadest sense of its meaning. It's a co-production between Chamber Made Opera and Bell Shakespeare's developmental wing, Mind's Eye, which permits an experimental freedom difficult to find in the pragmatic contingencies of theatre.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ms A's Guide To Theatre Etiquette

I see that Dr Peter West, retired university lecturer and social commentator, is in today's Age fulminating on the bad manners of Young People at the Opera and the Consequent Decline and Fall of Civilisation. Apparently nobody obeys Rules any more. It's all the fault of entitled young people with their newfangled phones, according to Dr West. Or possibly people on drugs. Anyway, I was inspired, and decided to list some Rules of my own.

Ms A herewith releases her own Manifesto for Properly Behaved Theatre Patrons.

It's all quite simple, really.

One Rule To Rule Them All And In The Darkness Bind Them: Remember that you are in the same room as a lot of other people, including actors, who can both see and hear you.

All else follows from this.

Rule 1: Turn off any electronic devices about your person, and leave them off. Embarrassment Moment No. 1 is your phone ringing during a play. An actor might even break the fourth wall and comment on your solecism from the stage, thus holding you up to public mockery and ridicule.

Rule 2. Checking email, Twitter, messages and so on during the show is right out. Lighting designers spend a lot of time getting their lighting right, and a constant bloom of flickering smartphones in the auditorium stuffs it right up, especially in that carefully crafted blackout. And no, you're not allowed to take photos.

Rule 3. Even if everything that is happening on stage makes you shrivel with horror and/or boredom, refrain from expressing your outrage and disappointment out loud until the show is finished. Unless, that is, you are invited by the performers to do so, in which case go right ahead.

Rule 4. If the boredom, horror and detestation get overwhelming and you have to leave, do so with as little disturbance to your fellow audience members as possible. Does the rest of the audience need to know how appalled you are? No. They might even be enjoying themselves.

Rule 5. You don't really need to discuss Aunt Madge's terrible disease in a loud whisper with your neighbour during the climactic moments. Really, you don't. Other people can hear you, and would Aunt Madge be comfortable with that?

Rule 6. Leave your handicrafts at home. No knitting, crocheting or whittling allowed.

Rule 7. Even the best-intentioned theatre goers can be ambushed by a cough. Carry a kit of Anticol and tissues. If you have a very bad coughing fit that can't be controlled, leave the theatre until it is over.

Rule 8. Never take a child under 11 to adult theatre, unless you are very sure he or she will enjoy it. It's not fair on the child, you, the rest of the audience or the performers.

Rule 9. Take - but don't force - children over 11 to the theatre, after impressing upon them (with threats if necessary) that they can be seen and heard by other patrons and the actors. Discuss the show with them beforehand (so they have some idea what to expect) and answer their questions afterwards. Not during the show.

Rule 10. If you fall asleep, don't snore. Make a pact with a companion to wake you up if your snorts start rippling through the auditorium. Speaking of which: isn't the theatre an expensive place for a snooze?

Rule 11. Don't snack. Especially don't snack on chips or anything that rustles or crackles. I promise you will not starve to death.

Rule 12. Silence in a theatre is okay. Really, it is.

Did I miss anything?

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Little Match Girl, The Importance of Being Earnest

*Spoiler warnings*

The end of the year is rushing up like a charging rhino. Melbourne theatre has its traditional means of signalling this milestone - widespread admissions of astonishment that Christmas is only 34 sleeps away, the issuing of phalanxes of party invitations, and, of course, the Christmas shows, crowd-pleasers that fill the houses with cheer and, hopefully, audiences. The Malthouse and the MTC have two winners this year with Meow Meow's Little Match Girl and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Meow Meow is not so much an artist as a phenomenon. She likes to have her cake and eat it too, while simultaneously throwing it at her audience. No performer could get away with it unless they had nerves of titanium and the charisma of an anti-Christ: Meow Meow does, because she's Meow Meow.

Anyone who's experienced her cabaret act will know the breathless feeling that the whole tottering edifice might collapse at any moment, the increasing tension of frustration and delight as the world's most accomplished theatrical tease refuses the moment of climax again and again, delivering in the final moment with some heart-stopping version of a masterpiece such as Surabaya Johnny.

In Little Match Girl, Meow Meow again moves her prodigious abilities onto a larger stage, collaborating with musical director Iain Grandage to create an intoxicating mixture of music and Meow Meowness, under the sharp direction of Marion Potts. Here the conceit is Hans Christian Andersen's story, in which a starving, abused girl is staring into the windows of the rich on Christmas Eve, as she freezes to death outside.

Don't, however, expect an adaptation: the story is rather the show's informing metaphor. Meow Meow points out that the Little Match Girl has never gone away, and that homeless, abused children are dying in every city on the planet. "Maybe it's too much to expect," she says, "that a song will change the world..." And of course, as Meow Meow knows as well as anybody, it is. The surprise is that anyone should raise the idea.

It opens with one of Anna Cordingley's most spectacularly lush sets (beautifully lit, or, in some cases, unlit, by Paul Jackson): a long thrust, with art deco floor lights, silver curtains, a huge chandelier. We enjoy this for perhaps five minutes before the whole thing is plunged into complete blackness by a small explosion in the lighting box, and Meow Meow is scrambling over the darkened seats of the auditorium, bullying audience members to lend her iPhones (which, astonishingly, they do), or to hold torches ("my face! on my face!"), or to power a bicycle generator. One particularly harassed audience member turns out to be music theatre star Mitchell Butel, who proves to be much more than a foil to Meow Meow's incandescence, and has a couple of show-stoppers himself.

As well as comedy, the darkness permits some powerful moments of intimacy: Meow Meow singing lit by hand-held torches in a cavernous space, or lighting a series of matches that immediately splutter and die. Of course the lights come back on, eventually, in one of the more gorgeous coups de theatre we've seen this year.

There's always been a strong smell of the Weimar Republic about Meow Meow (reinforced by her opening remarks being in German, until she remembers with a start that she is in Melbourne). And it's this which makes her work feel so contemporary: she brings a defiant spark to the darkness of our times, although it is a light that, in the end, only illuminates the shadows. One of the highlights of the show is her rendition of Laurie Anderson's The Dream Before, a tribute to Walter Benjamin's vision of the Angel of History flying backwards into a storm as the rubble of progress heaps up ruinously before its face.

Meow Meow is the embodiment of intellectual eroticism, supple and perilous as a flame: you'd have to have a heart of mud to resist a show that carelessly folds Richard Wagner, Walter Benjamin, The Magnetic Fields, Laurie Anderson and Noel Coward into one heady mixture. The energy of its theatricality is sparked by continuous contrast, which Peter Brook once claimed to be the basis of all theatre: at one moment, it is all heart-breaking poignancy; in the next, all heartlessness. Irresistible.

If there is such a thing as a sure hit, the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Geoffrey Rush as Lady Bracknell, is it. The show is all but booked out, although I believe the MTC is holding daily ticket raffles for last minute seats. Simon Phillips's farewell show as artistic director is a remake of his 1988 production, which featured an astonishingly beautiful and ingenious Beardsley set: a giant Yellow Book opened by the butler (I saw Frank Thring in this role, and will never forget his superb loathing as he surveyed the audience) to reveal black and white pop-up sets.

The original designer, Tony Tripp, died in 2003, and his design is recreated by Richard Roberts and Tracy Grant Lord (who realised the sumptuous costumes). Geoffrey Rush and Jane Menelaus, who played John Worthing and Gwendolen in the original production, are respectively Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism in this one. It's fair to say that this is a production rich with nostalgia: so many of the original cast members - Monica Maughan, Ruth Cracknell, Frank Thring and Gordon Chater - have since died. Tempus fugit, indeed.

Back in the present, the show pretty much lives up to expectations. Phillips is at his best with this kind of quicksilver text: his production skitters over Wilde's profound surfaces with stylish ease. To his credit, Rush doesn't camp up Lady Bracknell, and makes a frighteningly convincing bellows-voiced aunt, a redoutable galleon in full sail. Christie Whelan (Gwendolen) and Emily Barclay (Cecily) are stand outs, handling the mercurial text with deceptive suppleness. On opening night, Patrick Brammall (Algy) and Toby Schmitz (John Worthing) seemed constrained, sometimes a little stilted, although this lifted in the second act. And I guess nobody could stop Bob Hornery from outrageously mugging the role of the senile butler, Merriman.

The artifice of Wilde's writing is heightened by touches such as freezing the characters at the end of each scene, so they become images frozen against the pages of the book. I suspect that the symmetries of Phillips's blocking, which became increasingly mannered towards the end, might have strained Wilde's notions of taste: asymmetry is, after all, one of the necessary cross-grains of beauty. But it feels churlish to nitpick a production which so artfully fulfils its own expectations of sentiment and style. A foregone winner, as I said.

Pictures: top: Mitchell Butel and Meow Meow in Little Match Girl; bottom, Patrick Brammall and Toby Schmitz in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photos by Jeff Busby

Little Match Girl, created and performed by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, directed by Marion Potts. Sets and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson. Featuring Mitchell Butel. Malthouse Theatre, Merlyn, until December 4. The Famous Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival, January 6-29.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, directed by Simon Phillips. Original design by Tony Tripps, set realiser Richard Roberts, costume realiser Tracy Grant Lord, lighting design Matt Scott. With Patrick Brammall, Bob Hornery, Toby Schmitz, Geoffrey Rush, Christie Whelan, Jane Menelaus, Emily Barclay and Tony Taylor. Melbourne Thatre Company @ the Sumner Theatre, until January 14.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Return To Earth

I walked out of the opening night of Lally Katz's new play Return To Earth with my stomach in a knot. Readers, I have seldom seen a production which was so utterly wrong. It's wrong from the ground up, wrong from the first moment, and goes on being wrong all the way through to the end. Every flicker of life in this play is wrestled to the ground and throttled to death.

Any text, if it's at all interesting, invites a multiplicity of interpretation, and it's always possible merely to disagree with a take on a play. In this case, the wrongness goes beyond disagreement to a fundamental misunderstanding of the very being of the writing, to the point where the play itself is terminally obscured. It can happen to any play - I've seen it done to Shakespeare. It's as if a mistaken decision were reached early in the process, and every step afterwards led inexorably to doom. How this happened with the cast and production team that director Aidan Fennessy had to hand is a case study in artistic car crashes. On paper it's impeccable, some of the best talent that our theatre has to offer.

I should say that I am already familiar with this play. Back in 2008, I was one of three judges who unanimously gave Return To Earth a RE Ross Playwright's award for further development. The following year I saw it read in Hobart as part of Playwriting Australia 2009, and saw no reason to revise our judgment that this was one of Katz's best plays so far. Not that it's visible in this production; if I hadn't read the text, I might have thought it one of her worst.

Katz's early work, from the closely observed suburban absurdity of The Eisteddfod to the wildly theatrical dislocations of Lally Katz and the Terrible Mystery of the Volcano, created a riveting tension between a stern, even cruel emotional truthfulness and the dizzying vortex of her imaginative world. As her work has developed, from plays such as Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd to A Golem Story, the writing has become sharper: more theatrically crafted, less anarchic. But those desolating absurdities remain at the centre of the work: an obsession with death, loss and love, refracted through a self so splintered it can be scarcely said to exist. Katz is, crucially, a playwright of surfaces: her characters are performances of themselves, role-players in the most profound sense, and the emotional abysses that open beneath their emptiness and lostness can be vertiginous.

Return To Earth is an apparently simple fable that preserves Katz's unstable realities, but here locates it firmly in a - supposedly - naturalistic suburbia. There's not much in the way of plot. Alice (Eloise Mignon) returns home to her family after an unspecified time away, searching desperately for something real. Her parents Wendy (Julie Forsyth) and Cleveland (Kim Gyngell) welcome her home with claustrophobic solicitude.

Alice attempts to reunite with an old childhood friend Jeanie (Anne Louise Sarks), reconnects with her widowed brother Tom (Tim Ross) and her terminally ill niece Catta (Allegra Annetta) and has an affair with local car mechanic Theo (Anthony Ahern), a man whose skin is disconcertingly covered with shellfish. Alice finds she can save her niece's life by donating a kidney, but at the same time discovers that she is pregnant, which means the life-saving operation can't be done. Her niece dies, but Alice has her baby. Finally she tells her mother where she has been - in outer space, where she has lost her self but discovered the marvellous.

What counts is the slippages and ellipses in the texture of the play, how it lurches from apparently banal reality to strangeness in the space of a sentence. The result can be, as in Borges's story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, an increasingly disturbing feeling of the known world losing its moorings, becoming strange and perilous. In this production, we get quirky instead of strange, and emotional insight becomes mere whimsy.

Alice is played as terminally naive: there is no sense of interstellar alienation in her performance, no sense of almost irretrievably damaged adulthood. Her unvarying tone sets the pitch for the rest of the performances: somehow these characters, despite everything that happens in the play, are curiously static. The performances are generalised caricatures, rather than detailed investigations of emotional states. Claude Marcos's design, an abstract revolve mimicking a planetary system with a diorama of a night-time suburb in the background, exacerbates the problems: the actors all seem lost in the space. The set almost acts as a spoiler, leaving nothing to reveal about Alice's travels: we know from the beginning that she has been in outer space. Everything looks slick, but feels empty.

The major problem in this production is that the play's emotional realities have been flattened or simply avoided; certainly, I very seldom felt any emotional connection with what was happening on stage. Once or twice - interestingly, when the everyday realities were allowed to play without an overlaid theatrical self-consciousness - you could feel a flicker of life in the text, but otherwise its comedy and poignancies are all but destroyed. One feels that the MTC has tried to "make sense" of Lally Katz, closing up the centrifugal polarities of her work in the process, when her real gift is to use emotional truthfulness to destroy such enclosing rationalities. Without that truthfulness at its heart, the felt realities of loss and lostness, the play makes no sense at all.

Picture: Anthony Ahern and Eloise Mignon in Return To Earth. Photo: Jeff Busby

Return To Earth, by Lally Katz, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Set and costumes by Claude Marcos, lighting by Lisa Mibus, composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Anthony Ahern, Julie Forsyth, Kim Gyngell, Eloise Mignon, Tim Ross and Allegra Annetta / Talia Christopoulos / Matilda Weaver. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until December 17.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Shop talk

Recently quite a few theatre bloggers have been tracking their creative processes: George Hunka, for instance, is logging some of his thinking material as he writes a new play in his Elf King notebooks on Superfluities Redux. I don't especially want to do this myself - if I wanted to talk about my writing process, I would start a different blog - but I thought some readers might be interested in hearing about the theatre workshops that have absorbed my energies for the past fortnight. Also, they've been fab.

These were two entirely separate commissions that the cosmos decided should be workshopped at the same time. Night Songs, with music by Andree Greenwell, is being developed by Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye, and Mayakovsky, scored by Michael Smetanin, is a Victorian Opera project. They couldn't be more different from one another: Night Songs is a music theatre work intended for young adults, and Mayakovsky a contemporary opera. Both are very much in process, and the workshops permitted us writers and composers to get under the hood of the work and give the mechanics a bit of hammering, with the talents and brains of performers and directors to hand. Both weeks ended with showings of the work to small invited audiences.

The Night Songs workshop was at the Bell Shakespeare studio in Sydney. I co-wrote this text in a tag-team process with Daniel Keene and so we tag-teamed the workshop too: I was there for the first half of the week, and Daniel for the second. This worked brilliantly in every respect, aside from the fact that I missed the showing and associated drinkies. Reports were that it went very well indeed. Andree had set about half the songs, and by the end the showing was a reading of the entire text, interspersed with songs where they were completed. We had a great team: Matthew Lutton directed the workshop, with actors Paula Arundell, Cameron Goodall and Thomas Conroy and musicians David Trumpmanis and Loretta Palmeiro, and Courtney Wilson was our hard-working stage manager.

Mayakovsky, which was at Victorian Opera in Melbourne, was much more about exploring the music: Michael Smetanin and I have worked closely on the libretto over many months, and it is pretty much finished. I rather expected to be a useless excresence at the workshops, but fortunately 'twas not so. It was also a chance for me and director Peter Evans to hear the music. I've heard bits over the phone from Sydney, with Michael singing the odd note, but let's face it: it's not the same. Under the exacting musical direction of Richard Gill, four singers (Frederica Cunningham, Olivia Cromwell, Timothy Reynolds and Matthew Thomas) worked painstakingly with pianist Daniel Carter on about half an hour of music, which was again given a showing on Friday. I know I shouldn't say so, but I think it was awesome: this is an opera with grunt. (I mean that literally. There are wild animals on the electronic soundtrack.)

I can't think of a better way of working on a performance text. This is not "development hell"; it's a directed, intensive exploration of a work-in-progress with carefully picked teams, free of the pressures of production. You can get a lot done in a week, if you're working with the right people. And I was. Exciting, inspiriting and enormously satisfying. Huge thanks to everybody involved.

Pictures: top: the Mayakovsky libretto; middle: Night Songs workshop in Sydney with (from left) Matthew Lutton, David Trumpmanis, Cameron Goodall, Paula Arundell, Thomas Conroy and Loretta Palmeiro. Bottom: Mayakovsky workshop at Victorian Opera, Melbourne, with singers (from left) Frederica Cunningham, Olivia Cromwell, Timothy Reynolds and Matthew Thomas.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Away from my desk: and then back again

Ms TN been making sad little meep noises all year about the increasing necessity to pull back on the blog and focus on my own work. Now, as the late, great Midnight Oil once had it, the time has come: for the next fortnight, circumstance will forcibly remove me from my desk. Next week I'll be in Sydney workshopping Night Songs, a music theatre piece co-written with Daniel Keene, with music by Andrée Greenwell, which was commissioned by Bell Shakespeare's Mind's Eye. The week after that I'll be at Victorian Opera workshopping Mayakovsky, an opera scored by my old partner-in-crime Michael Smetanin and commissioned by VO. I don't know why these two entirely separate projects should suddenly come to the fore at the same time, but maybe the universe is telling me something.

And after that, I really have to put my day job first. Next year Walker Books UK is reissuing my fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor with funky new covers - I've seen the concept art and am very excited - and also some new copy, which I must write; and it's a chance for me to go through the early books and rid them of some minor infelicities. (Cough. Adverbs. Cough.) My forthcoming novel Black Spring, which is due out with Walker/Candlewick in 2012/13, is now at the fiddly stage of final edits. But top of my list is the need to start serious work on the mega-super-dystopian epic that has been knocking on the door for a year now.

These books are how I make my living, and give me the independence to do a number of things, including this blog. Right now I really have to give them the attention and energy they deserve. This doesn't mean that I'll abandoning TN, but inevitably things will wind down a little here. I'll still be posting the odd review - there are some upcoming shows at the Malthouse and the MTC that I'll be covering - but please note, companies, I'll be seeing very little before Christmas, and afterwards will be putting my own work first.

I'll be also taking some time out to think seriously about the future directions of TN: while it will always be theatre-focused, it seems to me that it ought to reflect my wider interests. Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed the description tag has changed to "arts commentary" in the recent redesign. It also occurs to me that I ought to make it clearer - even though it should be clear enough in my reviews - that I write criticism from the viewpoint of a practising artist.

While I'm on the personal: a plug for Boxman, Daniel Keene's new play premiering at the Big West Festival from November 16. It's a monologue written for the young actor Terry Yeboah, and is directed by Matt Scholten. It's a bit of a family affair, as our son Ben Keene is composing the music. As those who have seen the early readings will know, this will be something special. Very limited seating - it's in a tiny venue in Footscray - so book early. Details here.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

NCP preambling

During the recent Australian Theatre Forum, one of the Open Space groups worked on a response to the National Cultural Policy discussion paper. This diverse group consisted of people from all areas of Australian theatre, including funding bodies, major organisations, independent companies and independent artists. They decided that a preamble to the policy would be a good idea, and to model this idea in this their own submission. Then they asked me to write it.

The result is up at Overland Magazine's blog. The ATF Open Space submission itself, which deals with specific policy, is also well worth reading; but, along with some other significant documents, doesn't yet seem to be online with the NCP submissions. Hoping the Office for the Arts catches up with its filing soon.

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Interview: Paul Grabowsky

Curating an international arts festival, says Adelaide Festival artistic director Paul Grabowsky, isn't simply a matter of assembling a shopping list. And it's complicated. "With something like the Adelaide Festival, there are so many areas to cover," he says. "The performing arts, literature, visual art, film, public outdoor events... they're all things which people rightly expect..." And all this has to be made into a coherent event, a narrative that gives the public a sense of a journey. A daunting task, one might think.

Grabowsky has structured the 2012 Adelaide Festival loosely on the idea of Heaven and Hell, which he said represent the extremes, the best and the worst of earthly endeavours. In this, he's calling on art's transcendent possibilities. "The arts aren't subject to time and space, they're in denial of the three dimensional," he says. "And they gain importance beyond the times in which they're created. Art isn't ignited until it's experienced: it's a contained latency that's released by its audience. It's a way of making graspable moments out of the large movements of history."

In accessing these possibilities, Grabowsky says that a festival needs to be the result of a meaningful process that includes the local arts community, and which results in the public experiencing the kind of work that they haven't seen before. "Why else would governments spend so much money on them?" he asks rhetorically. "What else are they for?"

This has always been the remit of Australian arts festivals, of which the Adelaide Festival is one of the oldest. (The oldest is in fact the Perth Festival). The Australian arts festival experience was originally driven by the tyranny of distance: festivals injected into our culture influences and experiences that otherwise were only available to those with the resources to travel. A famous example is the Pina Bausch tours in the 1980s, which had an electrifying and on-going influence on performing arts here.

Grabowsky says this emphasis has subtly shifted, with energies now driving both ways in a decentred global culture. "In the 20th century, the idea was that we were distant from the world, whereas in the 21st century we are now celebrating our place in the world." As the recent Melbourne Festival has demonstrated, local art stands comfortably with its international peers. What hasn't changed is the notion that festivals can provide a space for artistically significant works that otherwise would be too risky for local companies to present.

For his final Adelaide Festival - not so much, he says, the first of the annual festivals as the last of the biennials - Grabowsky has taken care of the performing arts. "Nobody has the expertise to cover all areas: I prefer to work collaboratively with people in the different arts, who have the expertise I don't possess." For 2012, for example, Victoria Lynn is curating the visual arts, whereas Sophia Brous is taking care of the contemporary music program.

There are certainly some treats coming up on Adelaide stages, especially in the international programming. One of the highlights is Hard To Be A God from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó. This definitely from the polarity of Hell. "It's a tough piece, a documentary style work on human trafficking and the sex trade. Sexual violence is implicit in every moment. It's Brechtian in how it has distancing narratives - it's also interspersed with popular songs. I believe it's a really important piece."

He's also bringing out Isabelle Huppert in a controversial adaption of A Streetcar Named Desire from the Paris Odeon by avant garde director Krzysztof Warlikowski. "It divided Paris," says Grabowsky. "I really loved it, and wanted to see what happened when it was brought out of the hothouse context of France." For contrast, he's programmed a celebrated production of Harold Pinter's The Caretaker from Liverpool Everyman, featuring Jonathan Pryce, which he says is the epitome of well-made theatre.

Another international highlight is Raoul by French artist James Thiérrée, who practises the peculiarly French style of physical theatre, magic, acrobatics and poetry. "He's simply the greatest exemplar this kind of theatre," says Grabowsky. "He works on a grand scale - the festival centre has the deepest stage in Australia, and we need all of it to stage him." Thiérrée is in fact Charlie Chaplin's grandson - "he would hate me saying this" - and Grabowsky says that, although his work is very different from his grandfather's, it's also undeniably in that tradition, of the little man in a huge and bewildering world.

And then there's Gardenia from the unmissable Les Ballets C de la B, directed by Alain Platel and Frank van Laecke, which comes out of Belgium's amateur drag scene. "It's about metamorphosis really, how beauty is discovered within: the show itself is the transformation." This is show that Grabowsky describes as "redemptive".

Australian highlights include two shows from the Sydney Theatre Company, Stephen Page's Bloodland and a co-production with Force Majeure, Never Did Me Any Harm. "It's great to see the STC engaging like this," says Grabowsky. "It's a model for other major companies. After all, these companies are given funding to push the envelope, to push the artform forward. Quote me on that."

New works include The Border Project has a show at the Adelaide Zoo, I Am Not An Animal, and Windmill Theatre's School Dance, written by Matthew Whittet and directed by Rosemary Myers, a show which, as Grabowsky says, promises most interestingly. And Australian Dance Theatre presents interactive dance and video with Proximity.

Grabowsky is justly proud of his program. "No festival is going to be the ultimate experience," he says. "But whatever it is, it has to be the thin edge of the wedge."

More details on the Adelaide Festival 2012 program here.

Photos: from top: Paul Grabowsky; Hard To Be A God; Raoul; Bloodland.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Art and revolution

When Brett Sheehy, Melbourne Festival artistic director, launched his program earlier this year at a lavishly corporate event, he announced that the themes of this year's festival were "rebellion and revolution". This immediately set up a jangling dissonance: anything less revolutionary than the event which announced it is hard to imagine. This, you might justifiably conclude, is a comfortable revolution, rebellion appropriated and served up as a spicy dish for the middle classes who can afford it - one step away, maybe, from the Schweppes "Cocktail Revolution" ads, featuring faux stencil text and punching fists, that are presently plastering Southern Cross Station.

Ironies went into overload in the festival's last week when the Occupy Melbourne protest began in the City Square under the shadow of one of AES+F's giant demon babies - the signature image of the festival - and when protestors were violently and controversially removed by Victoria Police under instructions from the Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle.

Suddenly AES+F's artworks accumulated a subversive frisson of strangeness and ambiguity, as the sinisterly polished gargoyles transformed into perverse graces above the action. Above the tents of the occupation, the giant striding baby seemed like a ugly but benign avatar, emblematic of the extrusion of the different into the business of the city, ambiguous promise slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. After the police raid, it stood like an ominous reproach, or a sardonic comment on the infantile impulse behind the exercise of brute power. The image above, for example, which shows one of the statues towering above a City Square newly fenced off and "returned to the people of Melbourne", is striking (click on the photo for a larger image).

The Occupy Melbourne adventure highlighted the fraught issue of the privatisation of public space, an issue dear to the heart of many contemporary performance makers. For the festival, it put pressure on its pretensions to revolution. Despite easy dismissals, such claims are not without substance: Sheehy's best performance program yet hosted events like Ilbijerri's Foley, Gary Foley's bitterly funny account of Indigenous activism, or Hofesh Shechter's obliterating Political Mother, or former Dead Kennedy and iconoclast Jello Biafra, a vocal supporter of dissent, as well as a program of talks at the Wheeler Centre which directly canvassed ideas around revolution. In the heavily corporatised context of this year's Melbourne Festival, which even included a commercial production, this seemed akin to the artistic subversion that occurred under communism: art smuggling itself into a hostile environment as metaphor.

Many of the works on show did what art does best: raising questions in profound and complex ways, pressing against the limits of received opinion. Art, after all, is not activism, and its relationship to politics is often uncomfortable and a little Emily Dickinson, telling it slant. Art deals in complexities, and - as is especially clear in performance, but is true of all artforms - it exists in the nexus between private and public experience. Artists often sup with the devil: if they're smart, using a very long spoon. Nevertheless, you have to be blind or ignorant of art history to claim that art is apolitical, whether it's the Fascism of Ezra Pound, the art/reality investigations of Rimini Protokoll or art that reinforces conservative values, as in so much of the middle-brow performance around town.

Several works justified Sheehy's theme: Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly, for instance, struck sparks with the zeitgeist by investigating notions of private and public space; Back to Back's sublime Ganesh Versus The Third Reich - for me, and many others, the pick of the festival - interrogated not only the assumptions of theatre and performance, but the profound implications of power that underlie the most trivial of human interactions. Shows like BalletLab's Aviary, Barry Dickins's Whiteley's Incredible Blue or even Roysten Abel's joyous celebration of Sufi music The Manganiyar Seduction drove into an ecstatic sublime that, as George Bataille argues in Literature and Evil, must necessarily set itself against the good order of rational society.

Other works seemed to demonstrate what happens when subversive pretensions are co-opted into the mainstream and shorn of originatory discomfort and insight. Thomas Ostermeier's Hedda Gabler took all the revolution out of Ibsen and, for all its avant garde dress, served up a mild slap to a fictitious middle class, while Pan Pan's The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane domesticated Shakespeare to an academic argument. Then there was motiroti's Journeys of Love and More Love, which seemed the perfect presentation of tick-the-boxes liberal art: multiculturalism and the immigrant experience as tasting plates. Perhaps it was simply a mistake to bring an event of this kind to a city as habituated to immigration and as used to food as cultural expression as Melbourne.

It seemed to me that the festival served up enough exciting work to create a frisson of its own. Yet for me, somehow, that frisson never happened: there was not enough of the kinds of connections that happened with the AES+F statues. Perhaps this really is down to the festival context. I experienced it as a discrete series of events, some exciting, some not, rather than the dynamic cultural catalyst it might have promised. Sheehy was definitely picking up on the zeitgeist in foregrounding a theme of revolution: was this merely rebellion as consumer decoration? The answer must, broadly, be yes: that is, if you ignore the experiences of the art itself, which are - or are not - their own justification, and which work subtextually in a society in ways that are almost impossible to trace, but which can be profound. What's clear is how the collision of art and life in the final week of the festival illustrates the faultines that exist in our culture.

What to make, for instance, of Ted Baillieu, Premier of Victoria and Minister for the Arts, promoting on the one hand the "edgy and diverse works" in the festival program, and on the other supporting the violent police action against the 100 or so campers in the City Square? Does this taint the artists who, in imagining alternative realities and exploring the possible, expand possibility themselves? Can art subvert its contexts, or is its power inevitably negated? If subversion the best that art can manage, what does that say about the contexts in which our art is made? And does that subversion matter so little in the consumerist marketplace that it may be permitted a little dance? (Up to a point, Lord Copper). But, on the other hand, should this main stage public space simply be ceded on the grounds of these contradictions?

I don't have answers to any of the questions I've raised here, but I think they need to be raised. Especially after the brutal show of reactionary conservatism on show in Melbourne this week. As Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, "Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was." The most interesting artists always act from principle - Back to Back being a germane example. And they can and do change "things and relations".

Plans for future festivals, after Sheehy finishes his tenure next year and moves on to helm the Melbourne Theatre Company, are deeply unclear, although the removal of "arts" from its name - it used to be officially the Melbourne International Arts Festival - could be taken as an ominous sign. New executive director Tim Jacobs, formerly the Arts Centre CEO, wants the festival to redefine the notion of an international arts festival, and to become an event as publicly notable as the Melbourne Cup. He is suggesting it should be moved to March, when it will compete with the Comedy Festival, the wine and food festival and Moomba. There's certainly a lot of room for a rethink of the arts festival model in Australia, but I wonder if this is, as Jacobs says, the "way forward". I guess we'll find out.

Pictures: Angels-Demons Parade, AES+F, above the City Square. Photo Indy Media; bottom: Back to Back's Ganesh and The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Aviary

Some of the dance at this year's Melbourne Festival has been full-on sensory overload. Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother hit like a sledgehammer, an avalanche of sound and imagery that struck me as an almost unmediated response to the violence of our times. BalletLab's Aviary had a similar physical effect, with very different means and imagery. Immersive theatre? The choreographers do it by obliterating the unsuspecting audience with sound and rhythm, so you feel that your brain has been reprogrammed and the edges of your body have dissolved.

In Aviary, Phillip Adams creates dance of such intensity that it plunges the watcher into the experience, destroying any sense of distance from the work on stage. You could try to remain "objective", whatever that means in a theatre, but I imagine the result would only be boredom: the choice is to go with the ride, or to experience painful alienation. The dancers are put through the wringer of physical extremity - you don't see many dances that end up with blood on the floor. One effect is to destroy any notions of "good" or "bad": these become secondary considerations in an experience which invites intense participation.

The word "Dionysian" keeps turning up in my previous reviews of Adams's work. All his dances invoke ecstatic states: he obsessively explores the notion of transcendence, pressing the connection between the erotic and the mystic. Aviary is a reminder that dance has origins that predate human evolution, as is clear to anyone who has watched the complex displays and courtship rituals of birds on natural history documentaries. And it illustrates Adams's impatience with the politeness of art's conventions. Not that he can't exploit these conventions beautifully, when he chooses.

In Aviary, Adams applies his research into bird behaviours in a dance that "pays homage to the spectacle of the bird". The piece is inspired by Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux, a 1958 work for piano based entirely on birdsong. No trace of this music remains, save as scores laid on the floor in the first act to be consulted by the dancers, but Messiaen's sheer craziness informs the whole work.

It's in three distinct parts. The first, Les oiseaux en cage, is a joyous and lighthearted display of feathered costumery and display (the costumes, which are works of art in themselves, are by Tony Maticevski and Richard Nylon). The connection to fashion is made overtly when two dancers pick up handbags: at another point, four become a parodic string quartet, sawing atonally at their instruments. This is the sequence that most closely follows the conventions of contemporary dance: danced to a score of recorded birdsong, it features some glorious choreography, as dancers mirror each other's gestures, display their feathers, whirling into couplings and groupings, with no attention paid to distinctions of gender.

This display of technical discipline, the excellences, if you like, of the cage of art, begins to be undermined in the middle act, Le coq dandy. Adams himself appears on stage, dressed in a military uniform topped with an extraordinary white cloak, huge wings made of feathers. He dips and bows solo to some grinding organ music by Messiaen which reminded me of nothing so much as Vincent Price in his evil basement. Here he is showing himself off as an older alpha male, a locus of authority but without the suppleness and accuracy shown in the dance of the previous act.

The rest of the dancers soon sweep on stage dressed as brownshirts with delicate feathered masks. What follows is a bizarre cross between an 80s nightclub and some erotic military fantasy, a la Genet: to Simple Minds's Love Song, Adams's minions march, fall over, mime shooting each other, as he directs their bodies, violently shoving them into sentry boxes, making them march in rows.

This leads to the final act, Paradis, which is heralded by stage hands bringing huge heaps of fresh leaved branches onto the stage. It's introduced by Adams, dressed in a formal suit, albeit with an absurd two-peaked top hat, stepping up to a grand piano and improvising freely, using the heels of his hands, his fists and elbows, on the keys and the strings. He makes short, sharply rhythmic pieces to which each dancer, now adorned in a riot of pheasant feathers, are introduced in short solos. Then follows the sequence that finishes the dance, backed by percussive trance music by Geoffrey Hale, which builds from the behaviour of New Guinean bower birds.

This last sequence goes for longer than seems possible. The dancers, with Adams stepping between them, still the cock of the walk, throw the branches all over the stage. They pick up sticks and dance with them, they throw them, they beat each other, roll in heaps of branches, even eat the leaves. There is a strong sense in here of exoticism, but in truth much of it is so strange that it largely escapes a crude primitivism: the animal behaviours observed here are sometimes literally animal.

I had no way of telling if this sequence was improvised or not: there was an organic logic to it, but it kept splintering, the dancers breaking up into couples doing individual movements, at one point running around the stage until they were exhausted. The variations in the music's repetitions echoed the variations in their gestures: it seemed continually the same, and continually different, not so much building in impact as accumulating. At last four dancers began to make some formal movements that echoed those in the first act, coming together forestage holding sticks, which they formed to make a cross. And then, without warning, there was a blackout, and it was over.

There are lots of ideas in Aviary: the relationship between eroticism, display and art; the relationship of dance to instinctive animal behaviour; the fascism of the director; perhaps even an enactment of evolution. But these all coalesce after the fact, once you've recovered from the impact of the dance itself. I sometimes feel that through the extremities he unleashes on his dancers and audiences, Adams is searching for performance at its most pure, its ecstatic centre. Whatever else it is, Aviary is extraordinary.

Picture: Aviary. Photo:
3 Deep Design with Jeff Busby

Aviary, directed and choreographed by Phillip Adams. Costume design by Toni Maticevski, millinery by Richard Nylon, composition David Franzke and Phillip Adams, set design by Phillip Adams, nest design by Matthew Bird, architect, backdrops by Gavin Brown, lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne. With Phillip Adams, Luke George, Daniel Jaber, Rennie McDougall, Brooke Stamp, Joanne White and Peter AB Wilson.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Hedda Gabler, The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane

Watching Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hedda Gabler - the first of his works I've seen - was unexpectedly fascinating. Through directors such as Benedict Andrews, a stablemate of Ostermeier's at Berlin's Schaubühne, the aesthetic of Ostermeier and his peers has had a profound influence on contemporary Australian theatre. So much of the design language here - architectural spaces defined by mirrors and windows, revolves, projections, pop references - is immediately familiar. I felt as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope: in the face of what's followed Ostermeier, Hedda Gabler, which premiered in 2005, feels like a museum piece.

What's immediately striking is its deliberate affectlessness. This is a production which strikes a note of cool anomie, creating a surface elegance that expresses a monumental sense of boredom. The play has been updated, in a light adaptation by Marius von Mayenburg, to contemporary times. As is usual with such adaptations, violence has been done along the way: here Ibsen's play becomes a scathing miniature, a portrait of an emotionally numbed, intellectually trivial bourgeoisie. The problem, as always in contemporary adaptations of Ibsen, is how to make the social imprisonment of his feminine characters believable now. Here the solution is to make Hedda and her peers improbably shallow and stupid. Hedda's destructive actions become endowed with a vacuum of un-meaning: her twisted rebellion against the suffocation of her life becomes the moue of a spoilt child.

At this point, I started wondering if the theatre itself was as cynical as the actions of the characters it portrays. Which is to say, there's something too easy in this act of épater le bourgeoisie: nothing is at emotional risk, and so nothing matters. Compared with other recent Ibsen adaptations - Simon Stone's devastating Belvoir St production of The Wild Duck, for instance, or Daniel Schlusser's recent The Dollhouse - it felt like a one-dimensional experience: there was none of the textual radicality of those two very different productions, and little ambiguity of meaning. I admired the consistency, the almost bloody-minded formalism, of Ostermeier's approach, but coldly: and in the end, I left untouched.

Mayenburg's adaptation follows the play closely: the maid is cut from the character list, but otherwise all the characters and actions remain, albeit slightly updated (for example, the manuscript Hedda burns is changed to a laptop that she hammers to bits). The interpretation here is in the production, beginning with Jan Pappelbaum's design, an evocation of a sleek modernist house with walls of windows and polished concrete. It's set on a revolve and becomes the shifting planes for various between-scene projections. Above the set is a huge mirror, which gives us a voyeur's eye view of the actors when they move off-stage.

The performances are heavily naturalistic, with all the action set around the designer settee or on the verandah. This naturalism clashes with a stylised melodrama that attends the play's climactic moments. There is little sense - except in a couple of moments in Kay Bartholomäus Schulze's performance of the unstable Løvborg - of emotional pressure building under repression: most instances of emotional behaviour are play-acting, as studiedly conscious as Hedda's (Katharina Schüttler) feline restlessness. I don't know whether it's relevant that Schulze reminded me insistently of Julian Assange, but that association might have thrown a different kind of bomb into the action.

Hedda's motivations become almost an abstraction of the Pinteresque: she is solely interested in gaining power over others, and when she finds herself at the wrong end of the machinery, she tops herself. There is little sense of her initial powerlessness to illuminate this behaviour, and almost none of her radical longing for a more glorious, more beautiful world than the one in which she finds herself. Ibsen's Hedda has always been selfish, but has seldom been more trivial.

When the play steps into unreality - especially in its final moments, when Hedda's suicide prompts a ripple of dismissive laughter and shrugged shoulders from her husband and friends - it permits only cerebral response. Hedda and the gang are symbols merely, flattened-out representations of the conscious heartlessness of the middle classes, absorbed in their trivial pursuits as they turn their faces from the blood on the walls.

This insight may contain a general (and deeply angered) truth, but in the particular truths with which theatre deals it lacks any kind of emotional logic. I found it increasingly impossible to believe in people so determinedly shallow. We conclude that all these characters who we've been watching for the past two hours are psychopaths with empathy by-passes, and ... so? As audience members, no matter how selfishly middle class we might be, we all know that we are empathetic creatures, unlike those we've been watching on stage. Why else would we be here, elite beings, enjoying the fruits of culture? So what does this have to do with us?

Pan Pan's good-humoured production of The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane induced similar thoughts, although this production by no means seeks the cool affectlessness of Hedda Gabler. It too transforms a tragedy into a comedy, this time by opening up, Ayckbourn-style, the machinations behind the scenes.

The audience walks into a stage dressed as a rehearsal space, with the actors piled on a big table, like the heaps of corpses that finish most of Shakespeare's tragedies. Local academic
Dr Sue Tweg stands forward and delivers a short lecture on Hamlet, one of the most performed of Shakespeare's plays.

The lecture, by Amanda Piesse, senior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, is about the instability and polysemity of Shakespeare's texts, and introduces the premises of the work of theatre we're about to see. Tweg holds a handsome Great Dane, who tugged her impatiently as she mentioned instability, creating one of several ripples of serendipity that illuminate the performance, before finishing with an ear-rakingly awful rendition of Greensleeves on a recorder.

The instability of interpretation and role is then reinforced by the "director" arranging a reading of a scene from Hamlet, assigning the roles to the most improbable actors: the guy who's obviously Polonius (Daniel Reardon) plays Hamlet, and so on. At this point an audience member is called up on stage to read one of the smaller parts.

We then watch as three actors audition for the role of Hamlet before a table of people which includes the Melbourne Theatre Company's own casting director, Kylie McCormack. Each actor brings his own story and own twist on the role, and these are hugely entertaining comic pieces. They also permit, almost by-the-bye, a look at the different facets of a couple of scenes, as they are repeated by different actors. The upshot is that the audience is invited on stage, to choose which of the three auditionees ought to play Hamlet in the second half of the show.

What follows is a dramaturgically slashed version of the play, watched from backstage by the shadowy production crew. The connections between Hamlet's existential dilemmas and Beckett's Endgame - signalled in the first half by a short performance during an audition of a speech by Hamm - are here hammered (haha) home by a proliferation of dustbins arranged around the set. The action revolves around the players - here performed by drama students in school uniform from Trinity Grammar School - the grave scene, Ophelia's mad scene and the massacre at the end of the play. The show is rounded off with a brief conclusion from the academic.

It all passes pleasantly enough, but feels curiously unsatisfying. It's actually hard to see how this illuminates Hamlet beyond the points made in the introduction: Shakespeare's reflexive games with performance, identity and play; the ambiguities of his meanings; its essentially performative nature as a text. It did feel as if the lecture was a kind of safety net, ensuring that the audience "got" it, and lifting the risk from the rest of the production. And it seemed to me that the meanings given us enclosed possibility, rather than opening it through performance. There are times when it seems - deliberately, I'm sure - like a parody of bad avant garde performance: experiment without the danger of taking it too seriously. The dog provided some moments of anarchic interruption, as animals do, but I still wasn't convinced that it was more than a bad pun.

What I missed was more of the emotional realism Judith Roddy brings to the role of Ophelia, so the production might shift more radically between the realities it represents - rather as happens, say, in Ganesh and the Third Reich. (As a side note: on the strength of his performance as a Player and the Queen, watch out for Trinity Grammar student Tim Dennett.) There are lots of in-jokes for theatre nerds here, lots of audience-friendly invitation, but not, for all the activity around it, a lot of Shakespeare. I'm all for blowing up the classics: but I want the resulting fragments to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Pictures: top: Katharina Schüttler as Hedda Gabler; below, Conor Madden as a possible Hamlet in The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Set design by Jan Pappelbaum, costumes by Nina Wetzel, music by Malte Beckenbach, dramaturgy by Marius von Mayenburg, video by Sebastien Dupouey, lighting Erich Schneider. With Annedore Bauer, Wolfgang Bauer, Lars Eidinger, Kay Schulze, Katharina Schüttler and Lore Stefanek. Schaubühne Berlin and Melbourne Festival, Arts Centre Playhouse, until October 23.

The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, by William Shakespeare, directed by Gavin Quinn. Designer Aedín Cosgrove, costumes by Sarah Bacon, dramaturge Simon Doyle. With Andrew Bennett, Derrick Devine, Conor Madden, Bashir Moukarzel, Gina Moxley, Daniel Reardon, Judith Roddy. Also Dr Sue Tweg, the Venerable Eden-Elizabeth Nicholls and students from Trinity Grammar School, Kew. Pan Pan Theatre, Melbourne Festival. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until October 22.

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Double Think, Journeys of Love and More Love

Byron Perry's new dance work Double Think opens in complete darkness in the vast space of the North Melbourne Town Hall. To the rhythms of Luke Smiles's electronic score, blindingly bright geometries of white light flash out and vanish. The movements are precise, created as two dancers lift small boxes concealing the light source, and there's not enough time for the light to bleed out and illuminate anything but itself. It creates a dance of image and after-image on the shocked retina, and immediately suggests that this is an experience of interiority as much as spectacle.

It introduces a dance which explores further Perry's fascination with the manipulation of objects on stage, as in his joyous 2008 collaboration with Antony Hamilton, I Like This. The major set element is a wooden wall which can be pulled apart and reassembled like children's blocks. In one sequence, the dancers are hidden behind the wall as they push differently sized blocks in and out like organ stops. This creates a beautiful geometry of shadows, but, as with the manipulation of the light boxes, this is somehow never machine-like: at some subliminal level, we're aware of the minute variations of human movement. Perry is literally animating his set.

The tension between object and human movement widens to a consideration of subconscious contradictions, the "double think" of the show's title. This becomes articulate in a word-play sequence in which dancers Kirstie McCracken and Lee Serle throw random nouns at each other, to which the other dancer responds in wilful, even satirical movement. They then reassemble the wall into two distinct halves. A dancer sits on each side and gives the other wildly contradictory instructions on what they "must" do, furiously agreeing with each other. Serle insists on control, McCracken on the lack of it. It seems very clear here that they are representing the different hemispheres of the brain.

In other sequences, such as a vision where gravity shifts and we see both dancers as if they are seated at a table from above, they become a couple, negotiating the differences and contradictions of relationship. But mostly this is an exploration of the ways in which human beings deal with and express their interior polarities.

I really enjoyed this piece, but I had a nagging sense that there was something unresolved in the whole: the tensions between object and dancer, for example, seem still in process, rather than fully articulated. In the end, I wasn't sure what this work added up to, beyond a fascinating experiment, and some beautiful dance from McCracken and Serle. Perhaps this goes back to its concept, which as outlined in the program is a little muddy.

Perry's title directly references Orwell's notion of doublethink. Doublethink, says Orwell, is "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies." While this is an excellent description of the rhetorical strategies of someone like Andrew Bolt, I saw few connections with the dance.

Rather than the "deliberate lies" that Orwell describes, it seemed to me that Perry is exploring a creative dissonance. A more precise notion might be negative capability, the quality John Keats famously defined as the capacity to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason". These concepts are certainly related, but they are quite different: Orwell's idea is about destroying thought, Keats's about its genesis. I suspect a little more precision of thought - perhaps even an exploration of the contradictions and conenctions between these two ideas - might have helped to consolidate the dramaturgy of the dance.

After Double Think, I traversed North Melbourne to the Meat Market for motiroti's Journeys of Love and More Love. Written, directed and performed by Ali Zaidi, who describes himself as "Indian by birth, Pakistani by migration and British by chance", Journeys of Love is a story of odyssey, interspersed with a menu of tasting plates. After hanging around a bar decorated with bowls of flowers and pungent with incense, the audience is directed into a space which has been transformed into a large restaurant. The tables are surrounded by four huge screens that are filled with lush animations of flowers, and later with digital graphics which illustrate Zaidi's story.

It's billed as a participatory experience in which the audience gets to share food (recipes created by Zaidi) and Zaidi's personal story, and to reflect on "issues around identity and... static perceptions of culture". I, personally, am all for food in the theatre: La Mama has provided a couple of memorable nights in which the sensual pleasures of theatre are extended to taste. But somehow, for all its impressive dress, Journeys of Love was a lot less than it promised: sadly, the most interesting aspect was the food itself.

As a theatrical experience it gave us an alienated vision of love, mediated through a text that glosses contradiction and loss. Maybe the first mistake is reproducing a restaurant rather than, say, the environs of a home: this effectively atomises the audience. Zaidi is maître d'hôtel rather than a host, and there is little sense of more than a professional invitation. Zaidi's narrative is spoken through a mic, which is immediately alienating, and begs further the question of doing this kind of show in a large space. I had a couple of interesting conversations with my table mates, but this is the kind of interaction prompted simply by seating strangers for an hour or so at the same table. There wasn't much feeling of a collective audience response.

The text itself is banalised by Zaidi's repeated insistence that all experiences of migration - even the miserable existences of migrant workers in Europe - are "journeys of love". Take a letter, Mr Berger. It's hard not to feel that this show is the ultimate neo-liberal theatrical experience: the lesson is that all differences, even the homicidal conflicts between extremist Hindus and Muslims, can be resolved in an embrace, or through eating interesting food together, or by watching videos of local migrants talking about what it's like to be a migrant. Frankly, Poh's Kitchen on ABC TV does far more to communicate the love of food and cultural heterogenity. This is a tourist's experience of difference.

Pictures: Top: promo image for Double Think; bottom, Journeys of Love and More Love.

Double Think, choregraphed and directed by Byron Perry. Sound design by Luke Smiles, lighting by Benjamin Cisterne. With Kirstie McCracken and Lee Serle. North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House. Melbourne Festival until October 15.

Journeys of Love and More Love, written, directed and performed by Ali Zaidi. Recipes and videography by Ali Zaidi. Composition and sound design by Andy Pink, lighting and production by Steve Wald, video aditing and animation Daniel Saul and Katerina Athanasopoulos. motiroti at the Arts House Meat Market, Melbourne Festival. Until October 16.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Whiteley's Incredible Blue, Foley

La beauté, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats” said Aubrey Beardsley
when Yeats asked why he drew horrors
or at least not Burne-Jones
and Beardsley knew he was dying and had to
make his hit quickly

Hence no more B-J in his product.

So very difficult, Yeats, beauty so difficult.

- Ezra Pound, Cantos

I left Whiteley's Incredible Blue last night with Pound's verse circling around my head. Barry Dickins's new play, subtitled "an hallucination", is almost an essay on the proposition of the difficulty and necessity of beauty, through the medium of the enfant terrible of Australian art, Brett Whiteley.

Whiteley is a compelling figure: part artist, part charlatan, myth-maker extraordinaire, he died of a heroin overdose in 1992, aged only 53, in a country motel. So much of his work is trashy product for the cannibalistic art market that at once made and destroyed him, and yet his sublime gift for colour and line gave us some of us our most iconic paintings. Dickins, however, isn't interested in moralising, nor in biography. What he has created instead is a poetic riff that recreates Whiteley's restless imaginative excesses, a theatrical meditation on art, beauty and self-destruction.

The title not only recalls Whiteley's fondness for the colour ultramarine blue, but colloquially suggests Whiteley's argument ("blue") with life itself. It's probably Dickins's best play, and certainly a play only he could have written: here his Dylan Thomas-esque ear for rhythm and colour is given full rein, looping and relooping in an avalanche of imagery. These flights are grounded by an earthy self-awareness, a deprecating humour that pricks the impulse towards romanticising the artist, seeking instead to make luminous the sensual passion that informed his paintings. The blur of the sentimental is always a danger in a work like this, and this play never goes there.

The conceit is simple. Brett Whiteley's soul is in purgatory, trapped in the squalid motel room in which he died. He is played with a startling verisimilitude by Neil Pigot, who with the addition of a curly wig looks almost exactly like him, but it's clear from the opening moments that this isn't intended to be a realistic representation. Pigot plays him as a clumsy dancer, half child, half cynic, regretful and regretless, looking back at the failures of a passionate life from the dispassion of death, a collision of quicksilver and human flesh borne down by the gravity of mortality. It's a bravura performance, exact and compelling, which drills into the observation that might be Whiteley's epitaph: "I'm not good. I'm a good artist."

Julian Meyrick's production is carefully designed to frame and amplify the text. The set is simple: a wide stage, featuring only a messy double bed that recalls Tracy Ermin's squalid autobiographical My Bed, a side table loaded with pills, a radio on the floor. To one side is the band (Pietro Fine, Robert George and Robert Calvert). The art is suggested visually by the barest of cues - a mobile of birds in flight to the right of the stage and a few projected graphics. The paintings are principally invoked through music, Whiteley's line echoed in the soaring notes of a saxophone.

Hallucinatory stage directions are read in voice-over by Richard Bligh, Keonie Dodd and Daniela Farinacci, sometimes overlapping each other, punctuating the various movements of the monologue with vivid, oneiric mise en scenes. This is a reality created almost entirely through Dickins's words.

I wished that the acoustics at Fortyfive Downstairs were less muddy, as the music sometimes overwhelms the text. And occasionally Meyrick's directorial eye slackens: Pigot's physicalisations - playful dance, jumping on the bed - can tip over into the merely silly. When Pigot's gestures, however odd they are, unite with the extremities of the text, it creates a potent expressiveness, but this is not unfaltering. It made me think of the sort of precise physicalisations Anita Hegh created in Peter Evans's production of The Yellow Wallpaper: the performance language here is not as sharp. But these are quibbles. This is a sound production of a challenging and complex text, from a writer who should not be forgotten.

It felt serendipitous that I should see Foley on the same day as Whiteley's Incredible Blue: it was a day for Australian icons. Gary Foley, Aboriginal activist, uncompromising anarchist and unrepentant larrikin, is a living repository of a fascinating and shamefully little-known aspect of Australian history: the battle for self-determination and land rights for Aboriginal people. Rachel Maza Long's production is basically a lecture tarted up with a cardboard set that recalls a television talk show, with four screens showing various media - photographs, graphics, television footage. It's plain, unpretentious theatre, and absolutely riveting.

As with Ilbijerri's Jack Charles Versus The Crown, this is an exercise in autobiographical theatre. Gary Foley presents himself in his "native habitat" as an Aboriginal historian, which is a room scattered with archive boxes. Late in life, he tells us, he became a creature he despised, an academic (spit), graduating with honours in history from Melbourne University (spit), and now can be observed in his rooms at Victoria University. From here, he tells us the story of his life, which - as Foley was part of some of its most important events - is also an introduction to the wider history of black struggle in Australia.

It's a warts and all presentation, and often hilarious. It opens with a video of the young Foley on the lawns of Parliament House, being buttonholed by a disapproving matron in a twinset. At first he attempts to explain the aims of the protest, but soon he loses patience and roundly abuses her. When Foley himself, sans beard and long hair, 61 years old, steps onto the stage, he tells us that this angry young man is dead. "Now I'm a grumpy old man," he says.

Foley's often controversial life is full of colourful anecdote. He was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Embassy on the lawn of Parliament House in Canberra, a member of Black Power, which started the first free legal and medical services for Aboriginals (or anyone) in Australia, and even co-designed the Aboriginal flag. Importantly, he is also an actor. Indigenous theatre has been from its beginning a political theatre, the most consciously political we have; it's here that the very European notion of theatre as social revolution exists as a living thing.

Foley was a member of Sydney's Black Theatre, founded under Bob Maza at the Nimrod, and was in the cast of the ground-breaking 1972 political revue Basically Black. This is a legendary production, and one of the highlights of Foley is a short showing of some of the sketches filmed by the ABC for a pilot. The series was never made, presumably because it was considered "too political". On the evidence of those few minutes, Basically Black is the funniest tv show that was never made. You can only sigh for what could have been.

He outlines the history of Aboriginal activism against the background of the notorious White Australia policy and the wider international Civil Rights movement. This history reaches back to Federation, and forward as Foley traces his own involvement in the protests of the 1970s and the various governmental betrayals of the Aboriginal quest for Land Rights (it finishes by making the point that Native Title is an entirely different question to Land Rights).

Foley highlighted the shameful fact that I know much more about the US Civil Rights movement than I do about the history of Indigenous activism here. Even so, I had no idea that the early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson - in his time the most famous black person on the planet - was a prominent activist, or of his far-reaching influence on Indigenous politics here. This history is not only necessary; it's fascinating. If nothing else, that these stories remain largely untold demonstrates how colonial Australian culture remains.

And you'll seldom be taught history as entertainingly as in this show. Invigoratingly irreverent, driven by an unflinching lifelong passion for justice, it makes absorbing theatre. As the Age said of Foley himself: "If his ego is epic, as his opponents allege, so is his story." Foley's the one to tell it, and you'd be mad to miss it.

Pictures: Top: Neil Pigot as Brett Whiteley. Photo: Jeff Busby. Bottom, Gary Foley as Gary Foley.

Whiteley's Incredible Blue by Barry Dickins, directed by Julian Meyrick. Designed by Meredith Rogers, lighting by Kerry Saxby. Performed by Neil Pigot, with musicians Robert Calvert, Robert George, Pietro Fine. Melbourne Festival, fortyfivedownstairs, until October 23.

Foley, written, performed and co-devised by Gary Foley, directed by Rachael Maza Long. Co-devised by Jon Hawkes, co-written by Tony Birch. Audio and lighting by Danny Pettingill, costume and design by Emily Barrie. Ilbijerri Theatre, Melbourne Festival. Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 15.

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