By Uninvited Guests. Ends Saturday at the Arts Centre.
Last week a director arranged to meet me at a local café. We’d never met and stupidly forgot to arrange some kind of identificatory signal (“I shall be wearing a cheesecloth tunic and throwing my slippers at passing motorists”). Luckily her contacts at VCAM (I think) had given her a description. Apparently I look like “an old man”.
So it is with some heaviness of heart that enter this, the autumn of my days. I am hunkering down writing my memoirs in earnest – currently drafting Vol. IX, “Historic Events Involving Parts of My Forehead” – and contemplating bequeathing something to various worthy institutions, which at this stage means compiling iTunes playlists that will be emailed upon my demise.
But when I am lying on my deathbed surrounded by family and loved one, with forced breaths whispering priceless words of wisdom I have stolen and recounting my favourite moments from Jersey Boys, there will come a moment when I beckon those attending to lean a little closer. “Before I go,” I will croak, “there is one more thing of which I must speak.
“Before I head to that great skate-rink in the sky, it is my duty to explain why those few people who had a middling reaction to The Man With the September Face were missing the point.”
The Flood is worth seeing on the strength of its credit list alone: Jackie Smith writing, Moira Finucane producing, Laurence Strangio directing, Caroline Lee, Maude Davey and Shirley Cattunar performing, Bronwyn Pringle lighting, The Sisters Hayes on set and costume… It’s one of those pretty sure bets that you’re not going to get a fizzer.
And nobody disappoints. It’s not my favourite play of the year but it’s a memorable one. It’s been billed (and reviewed) as Australian Gothic but I think it sits a little uncomfortably in that category for a few reasons I’ll get to. In many ways that’s the best description, though, as it presents many of the classic symptoms of the gothic.
This is a very long and at times very wanky review of two fascinating recent shows. In fact it's really a review of a few very small elements in those shows, but in the last week I've written thousands of words trying to get to this point and can't be arsed rewriting them to make said point clearer. So this is what ya get.
Today's Age contains a wonderful opinion piece by Peter Houghton. I don't know why I found this such a pleasure to read - I guess, in keeping with one of his points, it's because the piece merely vindicates my own arguments about the critic's relationship with audiences.
"Several critics have argued recently that it is not their job to describe the audience response. They claim that the reception is irrelevant, that the critic is there to bring their professional skills to a clinical task of criticism which is separate from the audience. To me this is the rambling of an insane surgeon."
I’d never made it to one of Lucy’s Guerin Inc’s Pieces for Small Spaces. I’ve always been out of Melbourne when the annual mini-season takes place. I’ve meant to go since it showcases some of the best new choreographic talent in Melbourne, but Sunday was the first one I actually made it to. Boy-o, have I missed out. It was brilliant. Knowing, funny, subtle, very tough, very exciting – as a package it beat the brown stuff out of a lot of its more high profile peers.
Nobody wants to read about this. Nobody wants to think about this.
White pigeons were tortured and killed during a recent Sydney fashion/art party held by label Ksubi and beer giant Kirin. The event was held at Carriageworks. The pigeons were placed in a large white mesh net. Japanese performance art troupe Kathy delivered a piece from within the enclosure involving loud music, explosions and confetti, and at least one of the birds died during this piece. There are photos of other birds sitting on one of the corpses, now covered in shit.
By Meryl Tankard and Paul White. Ends tomorrow at the Malthouse.
Debating the finer points of religious texts is always a good way for people with self esteem issues to spend a rainy afternoon, although the occasional bloody conflict has arisen over questions of apostasy, divine justice and where exactly it’s indicated that Dumbledore is gay (also: why doesn’t my spellchecker crack it at ‘Dumbledore’?)
One of those more nuanced questions concerns the last words of Jesus on the cross, which are usually translated as “It is finished!” A lot of the attention goes to what the “it” is, but there’s also a chunk of confliction over the “finished”. Some translations give it out as “It is accomplished!” which is even more tricky. I first came across this interpretation at the end of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and that film was so dull that I totally felt for Jesus’ pain at the end and quietly cried the same words in thanks that my struggle was about to end.
“It is accomplished!” is also something I found myself thinking at the end of Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle. Not that it’s a biblical toil to get through, but the piece is a) overtly concerned with religion, b) incredibly ‘accomplished’ in a technical sense and c) an ‘accomplishment’ in that Jesus-y way – that is, as a fulfilment or completion that signals success, not defeat, and deserving of back-patting and high-fiving.
Some time on Saturday morning a massive knitted art work spanning 150 metres of an iconic Footscray bridge was destroyed by a person or persons unknown. The Big Knit was created as part of the very exciting Big West festival; but what can we say about its destruction?
I love development showings. They’re fascinating, especially when you go back further down the line and see what’s changed in the final product. It’s inevitably surprising what stays and goes.
I never saw a development of Lucy Guerin’s Structure and Sadness but I sat in on a rehearsal once and I’ve since seen it a few times. When I caught last week’s remount there were, unexpectedly, a lot of things that appeared new to me. They weren’t new to the piece, but it took a strong familiarity with the work to pick up on them. It’s an incredibly fine, detailed work and it helps immensely to be attenuated to its minute moments of beauty. Most people I know would probably recommend that you see it; I’d recommend you see it twice (the season’s over though, so sucks to that).
I’m still surprised that Guerin had the audacity to turn to the real collapse of the West Gate Bridge in 1970 as a fitting subject for a dance work. One of the strangest things about the piece is that it uses dance to examine a bunch of things that seem to have no place in the world of choreography: WORK, for instance. The meaning and value of labour, of the working class, of the poetry of toil, the perils of the manual and the joys and pitfalls of the technological sublime have been thoroughly worked over in theatre and visual arts and so on, but not so much in dance. Other odd things picked over in S&S include real, local history, mediated tragedy and the intimacy of grief. There’s also plenty of fascinating, viscerally affecting set-pieces in which the gargantuan forces at play in the construction industry and the fragility of the humans moving within them are made terribly apparent. If it ever swings by your way again, I urge you to see it.
But perhaps my appreciation was coloured by other factors. For one thing, that morning I drove under the West Gate Bridge. This is a very different experience from driving over it – instead of the odd sense of unnatural elevation and giddy lightness and the godlike expansion of vision, I felt the immensity and potential weight of the thing hovering overhead. It was an unexpectedly scary moment, mainly because it came out of nowhere and instantly made me think of S&S.
I was driving out to Williamstown to carry a ladder a few kilometres (long story). It was a pretty hot day and I was driving alone through West Melbourne, Footscray, on through to Williamstown. I saw a lot of container ships, processing plants, pylons, 18-wheelers, forests of metal gridwork. I really felt immersed in industry.
Then I carried the ladder and this thing was exactly twice my height and felt about half my weight. It took 45 minutes, walking alone in the sun, feeling like I’d set myself a ridiculous and pointlessly punishing task. It really hurt but, as with a lot of toil, I had to put my mind elsewhere and so that trip saw me thinking about a lot of things to distract myself from the pain. I also became extremely conscious of things around me – most of which I’ve now forgotten, with the exception of the mum who pointed at me and said to her two kids “look, maybe he’s taking the ladder to Santa to use in his workshop!” The only present this Santa gave them was a barely restrained scowl.
So when I went into S&S I was still carrying this heavy body memory of labour and my point is simply that this might have influenced my appreciation of the piece. It’s not a very complex or interesting point.
THE HARRY HARLOW PROJECT
By James Saunders. The Arts Centre. Ends Saturday.
I recently mentioned to a psychologist that I’d just seen a play about Harry Harlow and he did a double take, looking as if I’d told him I’d been to a musical about Pol Pot or something. The psych fraternity has an understandably troubled relationship with Harlow, and as this guy pointed out Harlow’s practice only made more acceptable what many earlier psychologists had been arguing for decades. Harlow was a behaviourist, which meant that he ‘proved’ theories by producing observable, controlled case studies (more legit than vague assertions, being more based on concrete and reproducible evidence).
The problem was that Harlow’s practice meant that the only way he could ‘prove’ something about, say, depression, was to artificially create depression in his subjects. The result were increasingly horrific experiments carried out on monkeys, and some of those detailed in this production are truly monstrous (the ‘rape racks’, the ‘pit of despair’). The piece itself follows a general narrative progression from his earlier and more acceptable methods to these later indefensible practices. Their effects on Harlow himself make up a counterpoint to this coldly clinical story, as his personal life comes to mirror the isolation and existential misery of his victims.
I saw a development showing of HH quite a long time ago, and I observed some things which had been heavily altered since then, and some that were more or less the same. What’s odd is that these observations were completely wrong. Speaking to those involved, what I thought had been scaled back in the production (movement sequences, for instance) have apparently remained mostly intact, while the text itself has been bolstered substantially (I thought it was essentially unchanged). What does this mean? I suppose it suggests that a second experience of an art work will always be coloured by the first, but not necessarily in obvious ways. I knew a lot of Harlow’s story this time around, so my appreciation of the text wasn’t as something new but felt quite familiar. The movement, conversely, which had seemed obtrusive and sometimes inexplicable now made perfect sense, so it seemed more appropriate to the production this time round.
This is partly why I’m always wary of concrete, objective statements about what a production ‘is’. Without descending into a relativistic ‘everyone sees stuff differently’ argument, I think theatre reviews are often unaware of their own particularity (I’m saying reviews, not reviewers as such, and I know a review can’t be ‘aware’ of anything but you get my point and I’m in a hurry here so take it up with management). When it comes to things like a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ production, or terms like ‘successful’ or whatever, I kinda see a show as an artistic Schroedinger’s cat, both dead and alive at the same time. Only the act of observation reduces these two simultaneous, contradictory facts to a single, perhaps fatal one.
Harrry Harlow's a really intriguing show - some things didn't work that well for me (the lighting states mostly) but other people had the opposite reaction. Despite any of my (few) misgivings, however, it's certainly a work that stays with you, and I think that can be one of the hardest things to achieve in theatre. I've often thought hard about that initial development showing, and couldn't wait to relive the piece. I'm glad I did.
In the past few years there’s been a pretty hefty push for a national Indigenous theatre company. I’m not that qualified to talk about the specific pros and cons of such a proposal, but I was thinking about it after seeing Ilbijerri’s Sisters of Gelam.
My initial response to the call was a bit sceptical. Even though I don’t know the fine print, as I mention, it does seem to me as if a national company could have negative impacts. The first is that consolidation can lead to a lack of diversity and opportunity. If one organisation was designated as the national body in any area it could lead to reduced funding and attention for smaller state or local bodies – great if you’re in with the major player, but not so much if your regional or community company is on the outer. I don’t know if this would in fact be the end result, but I don’t think there’s a need for a national theatre company or a national arts festival or a national opera company, for example. We have state companies doing that work. I’d rather have a bunch of such companies than a single one. Centralisation can be a problem as well as a solution.
We have state-based companies producing excellent Indigenous theatre – is my reasoning – and we should have more rather than fewer of these. Watching Sisters of Gelam, I began to question this logic. I can’t deny that there are times when size matters. The production is a decent one but it’s limited in scope and scale and for me personally accented a greater absence in Indigenous theatre. I’ll get to that in a sec.
The work itself is a gentle, effective retelling of the experiences of Lisa Maza and Rachael Maza Long, sisters who embark on a road trip to better understand the famous father who overshadowed their childhood. It’s presented in a magical realist manner, weaving in two other mythical/historical tales along with puppetry and live music. It’s understated but not unambitious; I did find it a little underwhelming, however. This isn’t everyone’s response – Cam Woodhead’s Age review described it as “a slick and lyrical celebration of Indigenous culture. It is performed with such presence and feeling, and speaks to such a profound and universal desire for homecoming and human connection, that it is impossible to remain unmoved”.
So: Sisters of Gelam does pretty well what it’s trying to do. My problems don’t really stem from the production itself, but from the wider theatrical frame in which it occurs. Indigenous theatre in Australia faces a kind of glass ceiling of its own – while companies and individuals create wonderful work, budgetary limitations mean that we don’t see work that crosses a particular boundary.
I want to know when we’ll see our Indigenous War of the Roses, our Aboriginal Lost Echo, or our five-hour Cloudstreet where blackfellas take centre stage. I’m all for personal stories as the basis of contemporary storytelling, but it shouldn’t be the only option on offer. War of the Roses, Lost Echo, Cloudstreet – these are “national” shows , ones which define our idea of what theatre can be in Australia, and the world, today. In the case of Cloudstreet, they also help define a particular national identity. Why isn’t there a black equivalent?
In part, I suspect, because those producing Indigenous theatre simply can’t afford it. Belvoir and Malthouse, for instance, have demonstrated an admirable commitment to Indigenous programming for some time, but there’s a limit to what they can do. Perhaps a national company would allow the creation of something able to redefine our notions of what Indigenous theatre can be – perhaps not. And again, if it’s at the expense of those smaller, more intimate companies, would this be a good thing? I don’t know. But I’m getting more and more interested.
Sisters of Gelam. Season ended.
LIFE IS A DREAM
Daniel Schlusser’s Life is a Dream is the perfect complement to this argument. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of theatre. Astonishing. Original. Respectful and irreverent. I urge everyone to see it twice.
But it’s also an oddity: it began as a VCA production developed over months of rehearsal. You’re at drama school, so you have time to play with the possibilities of a piece. That’s what you’re there for. So the development period for Life is a Dream is waaaay longer than almost any professional production would dare to hope for. Is it so surprising that it’s so much more polished and confident than so many professional productions?
You just can’t afford to spend three months (more, if you consider that this is a remount) rehearsing and honing the potential of a work when you’re on a tight budget. If you’re a non-professional company, people have day jobs and lives. If you’re pro, you’re answerable to boards and funding bodies and investors. If you’re at school, hell, let’s take our time.
Schlusser and his cast have torn apart a 17th century Spanish classic with such fine detail that the result is an entirely new tapestry composed of the most minutely filigreed strands. I won’t give away the story, as part of the pleasure is reconstructing your own version of what’s going on from the performances presented you. Enough to say that it’s a wonderful story, and the treatment it is given here is both brutal and affectionate.
Life is a Dream is the kind of work that can only be the result of that most precious of commodities, time. And we all know that time is that other thing, too. The Malthouse residency programs of the past two years have resulted in equally rich productions. And maybe, to return to my original point, it might be time to give just that – time – to an Indigenous theatre company.
Life is a Dream ends Sunday at the Store Room Theatre, Fitzroy North.
Today's Age reports that Melbourne Uni has requested that Melbourne Theatre Company appoint an equal opportunity officer and committee to address the lack of opportunities for female directors.
The initial response from MTC was to be expected - pulling out its empty pockets and wearing a sad face. Creating new positions can cost money, so it's likely the positions will be filled by existing staffmembers.
And it is curious, I'll admit, that unimelb asks for further roles to be created at MTC when most of its own departments and faculties look like shooting ranges right now.
But if the MTC does follow through on the recommendations it will at least raise the bar for similar organisations around the country, as well as provide vindication for the very large chorus of voices who have been calling for change for a long time.
The other development just as interesting is the demand that MTC advertise positions, especially associate director jobs. This won't just open up those roles to previously overlooked folks (if it really does that at all) - it'll allow the industry to scrutinise the appointment process itself. I'm expecting a fair bit of debate over who gets jobs from among those who apply, which will make for some hearty - even fiery - conversation.
Is David Strassman a plagiarist? There’s a bit in his new show that had me knitting my brow and considering the possibility. He brings out a baby puppet, one of many who are auditioning to replace the soon-to-be-departed Ted. E. Bare. After a few gags, the baby sings Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma".
I took me a minute to work out why I was experiencing such a sense of déjà vu and then I figured it out:
(Song starts at 3.10)
What? How could this be? How could two ventriloquists (themselves pretty rare) do a variation on the same act in the same town in the same year?
Strassman’s bit was slightly different: his puppet didn’t pronounce the words but just sang in nonsense baby-talk. Close enough, though.
There were three or four options that came to me.
1: Strassman knew about Conti’s act and was passing it off as his own (bad)
2: Conti knew of Strassman’s bit and was passing it off as her own (bad)
3: Neither directly knew of each other’s bit but had coincidentally come up with the same idea.
This might sound a bit unlikely but it’s worth thinking about. There’s an interesting essay by Jonathan Lethem that addresses this idea of cultural syncretism. It’s not surprising that two artists would come up with very similar acts occasionally because they both live in a culture of sign exchange.
Lethem’s article begins by describing the novella Lolita – not Nabokov’s famous tale but a 1916 short story by a forgotten German which is bizarrely similar to Nabokov’s. Both feature a middle-aged traveller who falls in love with a child and is emotionally destroyed as a result. Both give the child the name Lolita.
Lethem wanders away from this curious case but others have tried to work out what happened here: coincidence? Outright theft? Or something else: cryptoamnesia, by which Nabokov knew of the earlier story but forgot it, thinking that he was writing something completely original.
I like this possibility, and it explains why familiar lines so often appear in song lyrics or films, or why writers and actors sometimes offer something that seems a direct rip-off of something else but do so in such an unselfconscious way that you can tell they think they’re being original.
Strassman and Conti might have heard of or seen the other’s work but forgotten about the Puccini bit on a conscious level – when they thought up a puppet singing Nessun Dorma it was really a memory.
4: One knew of the other’s bit and borrowed it but that’s ok.
This is a tricky one. Further into Lethem’s essay he writes about the way some kinds of artistic creation are “open source”: jazz and blues musicians frequently riff off other musicians’ compositions, for instance.
Stand up comedy is not open source – recycling another comedian’s jokes is a cardinal sin, in Melbourne at least. But in the older variety show world, standard acts were commonplace and it wasn’t unusual to see performers pulling out old favourites that long preceded them. This was, in fact, what a lot of audiences wanted.
Conti and Strassman are at a strange nexus of comedy and variety, really. Ventriloquism has its roots in the latter but these days is more commonly situated in the stand up world. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen two puppets sing the same song by Puccini this year. Hell, maybe countless puppets have been singing exactly that song for decades and both Strassman and Conti are nodding to a much longer tradition.
This is why Strassman’s show works for a lot of people and why it didn’t really do much for me. His shows are almost entirely what you expect from “a ventriloquist show,” and his puppets are absolutely archetypical (foul-mouthed wooden dummy, dopey bear, take-my-wife-please-style beaver). His artistry is extremely conservative – he fulfils your expectations rather than defying, subverting or questioning them. This has provided him with a very lucrative career and a massive fanbase. You know what you’re getting with Strassman.
But calling this conservatism isn’t a slur: we’re all guilty of it in various ways. If I’d rather see someone who challenges my expectations, that in itself is an expectation I want to see fulfilled (rather than challenged).
By My Darling Patricia
My Darling Patricia’s Africa is such a puppet show. It takes after bunraku, the Japanese style of puppetry in which puppeteers are usually visible to the audience (this caused a stir at Avenue Q, too, although that show featured onstage puppeteers for a very different effect).
Africa is unusual for a Melbourne audience for this style (which is put to incredible beautiful use here), as well as its subject matter. It follows three preteens living in a house of overwhelming neglect and abuse who develop their own fantasy worlds out of the chaos around them. It’s deeply depressing and cautiously hopeful at the same time, and I can highly recommend it.
It’s not a better show than Strassman’s, however; the two just have very different intentions and very different audiences, too. I know which I prefer, but can’t dismiss the other.
Africa features a gorgeous set, strong and difficult performances from both actors and puppeteers and a tight, often surprising narrative. The puppets themselves are magnificent and handled with an unexpected confidence and attention to detail - if you're not a fan of puppetry you'll still be wowed by what they do here and the freedoms their use open up for new ways of exploring a situation (it would be a much less of a show if these roles were played by humans).
It packs a lot into a brief hour, although the resolution is a bit quick and neat for me, and the final moments of the piece could have been drawn out a bit longer to leave a more lingering impression on the viewer. In fact, it's odd that a work that really respects imagination, both in children and its audience, doesn't give you much space to contemplate and fantasise yourself once the lights go down. That's my only quibble, and if those lights could stay down for another five or ten seconds before curtain call I'd be a happy fellow.
Here’s a neat twist: Strassman actually has made artistic inroads in one direction that goes well beyond the traditional practices of ventriloquism. For a while he’s been introducing automata and robotics into the show and there are several sequences in his new show that do away with the ventriloquist entirely, as electronically animated figures with prerecorded voices take over from the old hand-up-the-bum ones.
And these automata come from precisely the same historical institution as the kids in Africa – the Japanese ningyo that directly led to mechanical puppets and later robots. Plagiarism, homage, open source culture or tradition – it’s all mixed up in the ecstasy of influence, innit?
Man, crappy families get a lot of publicity. Why doesn’t anyone ever look at the positive side of having a bad clan? Without dysfunctional families we’d be starved of so much great literature, sensational news headlines and 80s sitcoms. Not only that, we’d have no need of such things to help take our mind off our own domestic life and its disappointments. Hurray for emotionally-scarring families!
Drama schools are a bit of a family. I’d like to scold whatever parental authority decided to program the latest round of VCAM Masters showings the way they did – not for the inadequacies of their children but for the way they were all presented simultaneously in the same time slot. You had to choose which of the three shows you wanted to see and if another piqued your interest you had to come back another night. It’s like lining up your beloved offspring and telling them that only one can be your favourite so they better start selling themselves. It’s not a lot like that, but when two of this year’s offerings are 40 minutes or less it would have been pretty easy to give punters the chance to see a few or all in one night. It’s not like VCAM shows are fighting off hordes of eager theatregoers with sticks.
I saw Rinske Ginsberg’s Kin last week, and if it was anything to go by I’d gladly have walked straight into another show by one of her VCAM peers afterwards. It’s an unusually clever piece of theatre with some very impressive elements – great performances, a terribly effective lighting design and, most of all, a careful balance of experiment and entertainment. Ginsberg shows a commitment to formal innovation, emphasising movement and image-based techniques and the creation of an almost chiaroscuro effect, while maintaining a clear focus on narrative and developed characters that give you a reason to actually be interested in all the playful guff going on.
The work portrays the relationship between a mother and her grown son, with the matriarch sometimes split into three bodies. He visits her for dinner and it’s immediately clear from her disapproving, distracted insistence on particular dining rituals (where the cutlery is placed, how it’s held) that she’s had an awful effect on the development of this fella. Later, she visits him at his home and the anxious monster she’s created wreaks a reluctant but inevitable revenge. The whole thing gestures towards the gothic, towards myth, Freudian thought, child psychology, religious iconography, irony and penny dreadfuls. All of these are only blinkingly hinted at, and at no time does the piece do any roosterly strutting. It’s accessible on a very surface level without being reductive or condescending.
The dynamic between parent and child here got me thinking about an old notion I’d had of the family dynamics of Australian theatre. This is just rambling stuff and the review is basically over so feel free to tune out and admire the wallpaper, but here’s what I was musing on:
In classic attachment theory, how a caregiver responds to a child’s concerns establishes the foundations of their future development. If a kid is distressed by new situations and the caregiver acknowledges that fear before going on to reassure them that they’ll be safe, the child will develop the strength to be confident in exploring their world. If the caregiver responds by trying to quiet the kid down without acknowledging the validity of their concern, the child learns to internalise their worry. If the caregiver is more preoccupied with their own problems, or worse, provides erratic and confused responses to the child’s pleas, the child will develop a generally chaotic sense of the world that they live in.
In all but the first of these cases, the result is an anxious person. This can take different forms – anxious-avoidant (unable to make connections with others), ambivalent (seeking validation but anxious when it’s offered) or disorganised (confused and inexplicable responses). Looking at the arts scene in Melbourne today, I can’t help but characterise it as a State of Anxiety.
This is totally metaphorical and it’s cheap pop psychology, but it seems like a slightly fruitful analogy. It rests on the idea that emerging artists have a relationship with various higher-ups – funding bodies, curators, administrators, programmers, directors etc – that puts the latter in the role of caregiver. The responses provided during years (or even decades) of awkward first steps will shape the later artist in fundamental ways. It’s for this reason that even hugely established and respected artists that I’ve met have spoken in ways that suggest a not personal anxiety but a professional anxiety that runs deep. It’s as if they can never feel secure in their practice, even after winning countless awards, earning frequent public praise and building up an enduring and well-paid career.
You could argue that this is because so much of artist’s life early on is defined by rejection – applying for jobs, auditioning for roles, putting in grant applications that go nowhere. That’s fine, and of course it can’t change.
But I think that what this attachment-theory-lite perspective can offer is an alternative vision of an arts caregiver’s responsibility. Of course artists will be rejected, but the way in which that rejection is framed is crucial to their later development.
If your submissions are met with resounding silence, with pro forma apologies and lack of direct attention, it’s no surprise that you may well become avoidant (giving up on funding and treating yourself as an outsider) or ambivalent (desperate for attention but feeling unsatisfied if it ever arrives). And too many artists have a disorganised relationship with their caregivers, simply not having a clue how it all works.
Part of this is due to the cold and impersonal vision these caregivers have – even using the term ‘caregiver’ is very likely causing a few readers to don an ill-tempered sneer. It’s a fluffy huggable word that couldn’t really have a place in business, in industry.
But the terminology we use in that industry shapes the culture itself: if you demand ‘transparency’ you are implying someone’s desire to obfuscate; when you demand ‘accountability’ you are implying someone has done something wrong. Nobody asks who is accountable for an act of wonder or charity. You might ask who is responsible, but that word’s lost some currency. Suspicion defines the economic mindset of today. (And re. the ongoing gender-inequity-in-theatre debate: there’s a huge difference between saying ‘this is something that needs addressing’ and saying ‘this is something I want to address.’)
I don’t mean to slight Brett Sheehy here (some think I have a beef with him but he’s done plenty of laudable things with MIAF) but his definition of the caregivers I’m discussing as ‘gatekeepers’ is exactly what I’m talking about. ‘Gatekeeper’ isn’t a title I would ever want, since it implies a chill and impartial authority with little responsibility for those prevented from passing through the gate. Using a term such as caregiver instead is precisely unacceptable because it implies that responsibility, which no gatekeeper wants.
I’m not saying that gatekeepers need to fling open the gates and let everyone into their boardroom/festival/venue, or that funding bodies need to just start flinging dollars off the top of the battlements to the assembled throng below. One of a caregiver’s primary roles is to say no.
But it takes real talent to be able to tell someone that their art is really dreadful and undeserving of a few of your pennies. And it’s a truism that as long as there are humans on the face of this planet there will be some who exist with deluded fantasies of artistic genius inversely proportionate to their abilities. Most of them live hand to mouth and contribute a fair whack of CO2 by gasbagging on about how hard it is to get the attention of the higher-ups. The deleterious effects on our atmosphere are about the only real harm such bloviators cause, however, so it’s hard to see why people get worked up about artists whose only crime is overestimating themselves.
If sub-par artists actually received responsible attention from caregivers – explaining that their anxieties are understandable and valid, but that there are artistic problems they need addressing – then surely the result would be artists who actually improve instead of developing a sense of mistrust and fear towards the industry at large.
But is it a revolutionary idea to suggest that an average artist could actually become something else if they were provided with the right guidance? Sure, nobody wants to take on that responsibility, and most of us would respond that these artists are best off either enrolling in a course or just slogging away at their practice and getting back to us when they have something decent to show for it.
Fair enough. It’s worked that way forever. It’s how society operates, and not just in the arts sector. It’s called capitalism. We don’t want to be responsible for anyone beyond our own nearest and dearest. Industries may talk about themselves as families, but any real family that treated its members the way industries do would result in massively damaged offspring. What’s the alternative?
Well, we could start with the famous line from Eugene Debs, who was otherwise a bit of a doofus. “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” How about this: while there is shitty art in Melbourne, I am responsible for it. And while there are anxious artists in Melbourne, I will blame myself.
One of my favourite phrases: "So now then". Each word in it is packed with possibility. Whoever thought of putting them together is amazing.
THE CORPSE OF HAMLET
By Mutation Theatre. Trades Hall, ends Sunday.
If some 16th version of Parky had asked Shakespeare which of his characters would have the most enduring impact on 400 years of theatre, he probably would have said Coriolanus or Pericles or Titus Andronicus because all of their names are a bit rude-sounding and Bill was pretty much the Elizabethan Benny Hill. This is corroborated by the original titles of many of his plays: Carry On Up the Canal, Windsor Wives Gone Wild and Henry IV: Assignment Miami Beach.
But if you’d asked the real author of his plays (Kit Marlowe) you’d get a different response. Marlowe would have said Hamlet because Marlowe was a sooky baby, but Marlowe would also have been right because Marlowe was always right. Even though more people today have probably seen some version of Romeo and Juliet than a full production (or film) of Hamlet, the Dane is still that great Everest that all serious young actors aspire to take a crack at one day or another. This is a pity since Hamlet is generally the least interesting of Shakespeare’s leads and has been freakin’ done to death a million times over.
This is part of the beauty of Mutation Theatre’s current effort The Corpse of Hamlet, and by beauty I of course mean problem. It begins with Bill, a guy who claims to have been there when Hamlet died and who has lived 400 years watching actors donning his dead corpse and paying disrespect to the guy. This is an intriguing beginning, hinting at cursed immortality of figures like the Biblical Cain or the Wandering Jew; framing things within a nice pomo self-reflexivity about the death of tragedy; and promising an investigation of the legacy of Hamlet in theatre history, rather than just trying to wear the dead corpse himself.
It doesn’t really live up to this promise, though. The vague narrative is driven by the journey of this Bill fella from an undying and unchanging Hell to some kind of redemption, but the show’s playfulness also makes it very difficult to follow. Sometimes Bill becomes Hamlet, sometimes he appears a deluded young actor who thinks he’s Hamlet, sometimes he seems completely unlocatable. He sings songs, converses with an overpowering God-like figure, performs snatches of text from Hamlet. There are some very fine sequences: one in which male suicide is discussed, plus an ironic recurring motif in which scenes end with fantasies of murder which reveal the essentially juvenile aspect of Bill/Hamlet. But there are other scenes that aren’t necessary. We’re treated to not one but two elongated sequences of dressing and undressing. I came to a show with the cool title of “The Corpse of Hamlet,” not “The Changing Rooms at Roger David”.
Patrick McCarthy devised and performs solo in the piece, which explains some of the lack of perspective that’s common in such works. McCarthy’s company has pulled off some very highly-regarded works in the past couple of years, but this one would benefit from further development and focus. There’s a good show in here, but it’s still wearing the corpse of something else.
IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU’D BE HOME NOW
By I'm Trying To Kiss You. Season ended.
This excellently-named show from an excellently-named new company tackles the age old question of what a person should do when they wake up in a strange house after a big party with no memory of the night before and only a crazy woman to help you piece together the jigsaw. In my experience, the answer to that question is this: when she offers to make you a cup of tea and then just proceeds to throw a soggy roll of toilet paper at you, politely make your exit and just consider the night a write-off.
A girl waking up and then having a wet dunny roll flung at them isn’t really enough to justify an hour of theatre, though, so this play introduces a few more elements. Crazy lady slowly reveals some truly horrible events from the night which hangover lady may or may not have caused; there are intimations that this isn’t a real conversation at all but something more metaphysical; there’s an exciting bit with a water bottle that contains vodka.
Everyone involved throws themselves into this show with gusto, and most are between 20-25. It sort of shows – the space between what they’re aiming for and what they achieve is always apparent, and while the narrative doesn’t necessarily unfold in a predictable way, there are only a few options that seem available for its trajectory and it dutifully sticks to these. It doesn’t aim too high, which is both good and bad.
One technical quibble I had with the show was the performances, which were both independently strong but lacked something when matched together. The character who Knows All is what an acting teacher would call a high status character – she has power over the poor girl who just wants to know what happened. But usually a high status character doesn’t need to lord it all over the lower status folk, because they already they have that power. In this piece she’s acting as if she’s the one depending on the other for validation – I realise this actually makes sense by the end of the piece, but it’s a dynamic that seems initially jarring and doesn’t alter throughout the show. When you compare it to something like a Pinter play, which this is very close to, you can see how power relations can be all the more chilling when they aren’t about flouting power but are about its absence of warning signs, the way emotional violence can be casual and seem effortless.
Anyway, on with the show.
By Spill Collective. Season ended.
Some of the I’m Trying to Kiss You folks had a hand in this piece at fortyfivedownstairs, too. It’s a very different beast: more of a performance art thing (which nobody says anymore – live art has taken over there, though that’s a very troubled and abused term too which isn’t necessarily appropriate here). Solipsis basically consists of a big bubble hanging from the ceiling in which a creepy post-human dude dwells, and five mutant apocalyptic figures who hang around the outside of the bubble. There’s some really great sound art, a few projected images, an impressive and organic set design and a bit of talking and movement. I couldn’t hear a lot of the spoken stuff and the movement was interesting but not what you’d call choreography.
I don’t know that anyone involved in the production could have coherently summarised what they were trying to achieve. This isn’t a criticism – as performance art it’s perfectly healthy to create an open-ended environment with no knowledge of the results. It seemed a lot of fun for all participants, too. But a lot of the imagery employed and themes of mutable bodies, oozing viscera and contamination are pretty familiar.
SO NOW THEN
I’ve linked these three mini-reviews because they collectively seem to indicate a couple of things to me:
Firstly, they all show how younger performance makers usually have to get a certain range of things out of their system, which is why they’re about things that are interesting to theatre folks in their early twenties (partying, body horror, their relationship to theatre itself). Indeed, all of these shows are about all of these things in certain ways.
Secondly, they all show what a great network of younger performance makers there are in Melbourne right now – it’s really, really encouraging to see people energetically mounting productions such as these. More on that in a later post.
Thirdly, they all suggest to me a bit of a crisis these performance makers face. They’re all influenced by theories of postmodernism, but all face the stalemate that undergrad pomo courses leave students with. They all know that we can’t simply return to models of naïve realist theatre and remain interesting to anyone with a serious interest in performance, but they’re also unclear where to go from here. They’re either too aware of alternatives, so that it seems everything has been tried before, or they’re not aware and therefore try to invent something new which has already been invented.
I mean this in the classical sense. When it came to the stage the word originally meant cross-dressing – dressing in the guise of another, but more frequently as someone of the opposite sex. Travesty as a genre is traditionally conflated with burlesque. Both terms seem to have lost a lot of their older meaning these days, as well as what made them so interesting.
When someone calls something a travesty of justice, or says that Obama’s winning made a travesty of the Nobel Peace Prize, or that rapist footballers make a travesty of the sport, they’re not talking about the theatrical form of travesty. Sometimes they mean ‘mockery’ or ‘parody’ but that’s not really accurate usage either. In some cases they even mean ‘tragedy’ but that term is just as abused to the point of meaninglessness.
My point is that ‘travesty’ in its older sense was a very positive thing (to its fans, at least).
Transvestism had power. It was an exception, sure, but it also had the potential to be exceptional.
What about we get male ballet dancers dressing up as female ballet dancers? The whole concept sounds like the kind of idea someone starts kicking about after N+1 drinks on a Friday night (if N=the point at which you should stop drinking). Most of those ideas end the same way: with you naked and strapped to the inside of a giant tyre-tube as your “friends” roll you down your ex’s driveway at midnight singing La Marseillaise. The Trocks, on the other hand, have managed to spin a 35-years-and-counting career out of their harebrained scheme.
Of course you can’t milk three decades-plus out of such a simple concept and the Trocks add a few extra layers to this lasagne. First up there’s the slapstick, whereby they engage in much clowning and falling over and “Whoops Matron!”-style mugging. Then there’s the lampooning of ballet itself, which is generally pretty austere and humourless (or not funny when it tries to be) and so is prime for irreverent treatment. Here they take on particular genres of classical dance, to mixed effect. The sequence satirising Merce Cunningham’s style was just plain dumb: three dancers moving in a pointless abstracted way while a pair of musicians played increasingly silly ‘instruments’ – kazoos, paper bags, kitchen utensils. Look how ridiculous postmodern dance is. Right.
But beyond all of these are the claims that the Trocks, despite the comedy, are also first-rate dancers. They’re good. Don’t get me wrong there. But they’re not that good. On opening night there were plenty of synchronised bits that were out of sync, a couple of wobbly moments that weren’t meant to be wobbly, and only a few really impressive pieces of challenging choreography. I know the objection: they’re big blokes doing things that are amazingly hard for a tiny woman to do! Well, hard for a reason. An 80-kilo man is not built to stay en pointe for long. Neither is a 40-kilo woman, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. Imitating what is already a pretty ludicrous activity and making it even harder doesn’t make it more astounding. It just highlights what’s so odd about the whole endeavour in the first place.
This is where the weird and complicated gender politics of male drag come in. There are a few schools of thought here. One is that drag upsets traditional gender roles by revealing how they’re just based on masquerade and performance, and aren’t dependent on biological sex. Drag shows that gender is fluid, and is liberating – and fun – because it laughs at the straightjacketing we experience in a gendered society.
Then there’s the argument that drag reverses gender typing only to reaffirm it. This is the old argument about the way supposedly revolutionary, carnivalesque antics provide a moment of release in which power flows seem to be reversed, but once the pressure valve has gone off the status quo reasserts itself. The Trocks on stage, according to this thinking, are so enjoyable only because we don’t have the Trocks in real life.
There’s also the veeeery difficult ideas about drag raised by theorist Judith Butler. She was a big proponent of drag’s revolutionary capacities at first but her thinking altered over time. She began to assert that the specific politics of a lot of drag acts were very conservative – they involved a male colonising the already artificial performance of “the feminine” and reclaiming even that space for the patriarchy, by being more “feminine” than even a woman could be. You could extend this argument into the nineties and noughties to look at how female celebrities have tried to match this hyper-femininity by altering their bodies so much as to create a standard of femaleness that is utterly at odds with what you’re born with. From Pamela to Paris we’ve seen women who seem to be trying to emulate drag queens who themselves are trying to emulate women. The debate is a lot more nuanced than this but I’m just aiming for the outlines here.
The Trocks don’t really do that much that’s subversive, in any case. There’s certainly nothing in their show that you wouldn’t see on prime time commercial TV, or wouldn’t have seen there 30 years ago. Guys have been frocking up for centuries for popular amusement. And the Trocks offer an oddly sexless show: though there’s transvestism there’s no sexuality of any sort (although this can also be said for ballet in general). This kind of defuses any dangerous energy produced by the drag. If we’re laughing, then, it’s at what? At ballet? Easy target. I laugh at ballet all the time. At the silly slapstick? Not really top-shelf comedy. At men dressed as women? You can find that at the most reactionary bloke’s buck’s night.
So there: I’ve explained why I don’t think the Trocks are that much chop in the classical ballet department and then I’ve gone on to explain why I don’t think the jokes really work. My god. What a grumpy old farter I’ve become. Nobody likes someone who tries to explain why a joke doesn’t work. It only proves that I didn’t get it. All credit to those (many, many people) who do. The Arts Centre. Ends tomorrow.
As I was watching Invisible Stains I kept being reminded of a show I’d seen before but couldn’t rightly figure what it was. Then I did. Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail. And that was like a kick in the hippocampus. Why was I comparing the most astonishing piece of performance I have ever witnessed (and, I increasingly feel, will ever witness) to a graduating production at VCAM?
W – in the vulgar argot – TF? There are a few surface similarities. Firstly, Invisible Stains has a big cast. This is standard biz for a drama school show since everyone needs their moment to shine and you’ve usually got a couple dozen of the little goobers to get through. Sometimes this leads to arse-punishing productions of four hours or more. Thankfully Invisible Stains clocks in at under two. And there’s also the perennial problem whereby certain students are featured more prominently than others, and in this case there were still a few people who popped up an hour and a half in and had me wondering ‘where the dickens have you been all this time?’
I do love a large cast. I missed the Ridiculusmus playreadings at the Fringe Festival this year but when I heard that one had featured a cast of 50 I was outraged. My response was something like:
50 PEOPLE. WHY. WASN’T. I. TOLD?
So yes, I do have an oddball jonesing for too many performers onstage at once.
But big casts don’t make great shows by any means. Another basic thing Invisible Stains shares with Caravansérail is big intents. Both span continents and cultures and decades and feature not just dozens of cast members but hundreds of characters. They’re not intimate in scale – they’re not even epic, since the epic usually maintains a focus on individuals within the longue durée. They’re spectacular. Individuals aren’t the point: or at least they don’t act as metonyms for a transcendent point.
Because there is no point.
This is what connects Invisible Stains and Le Dernier Caravansérail.
They are pointless.
They are without a point. They are not without a purpose.
But they are without a centre.
It’s impossible (or beside the point) to say what either show is ‘about’. This is funny, since both shows employ aboutness as their method. They have no core, but this is what makes them so fascinating.
Comparison: in Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals (which will get its own post soon) he mentions a backyard astronomer telling him that sometimes, to see a faint star, you need to look around it. The most sensitive parts of the human eye aren’t the ones we use to focus on objects but are at the periphery of our ocular mechanisms, so by glancing around the object in question we can see it better than if we try to stare at it. Try it.
Comparison: In Camera Lucida, the book Roland Barthes wrote after his mother died and not long before he died, he discussed his photographic notions of the studium and the punctum. The studium is the cultural white noise of a photograph: the stuff we pass over, the social content that becomes the background due to our collective familiarity with it, the way journalistic photography doesn’t reach us on a personal level but bleeds into a more general gloss of reality.
The punctum is that point in a photograph that erupts from the studium, ‘wounding’ us with an unexpectedly personal poignancy. We suddenly find something that pierces us, that makes the photograph a private encounter rather than a social one.
Barthes seems to privilege the punctum. The photo that creates a moment of intimate connection between image and viewer.
Some of the most interesting contemporary theatre goes the other way. Presents us with the studium. Looks around the star to bring it to our attention.
Invisible Stains flickers through dozens, maybe hundreds of moments in collective memory. It looks at how that cultural memory is shored up (as well as the process of forgetting it entails – all memory, individual and cultural, is selective). So when a man in a suit carrying a briefcase appears in a daze, his hair and clothes covered in dust, we know instantly what is not being shown here. Two rifle-carrying soldiers in a jungle hear a helicopter overhead and another mist of dust begins to fall on them. Four women in underwear are inspected by a silent guard, who smells the hair of each in turn before ordering one apart from the others.
The various situations are often quick, sometimes less than a minute, and bleed together in a dizzying fashion. Some recur, or are echoed by others, and some seem to point to very different contexts at the same time. Some are hard to recognise, too. But there is so much going on here, all of the time, that the mind has to unfocus its attempts to determine what the ‘point’ is – what the unifying principle or theme or message or whatever is – and try rather to take in the whole. That’s why I was reminded of Caravansérail: there’s no narrative giving import to certain characters and moments while others are subtext or side-plot or just plain padding. There are also no connections between most of these scenes beyond aesthetic ones. Perhaps the closest comes during a startling monologue in which it is explained, mathematically, how every person in the theatre is genetically related. There are some daggy moments in the show, or things that just don’t work. One of the recurring and contrasting sequences sees the entire cast at a wild party, a decadent counterpoint to the sufferings that make up the rest of the show. It’s an annoying undergrad scene, which only later became more forgivable to me as it became clear that this is exactly the kind of annoying undergrad life that some people (including acting students) indulge in. When some kids try to waterboard one legless partymember and film it on their phones so they can post it to YouTube, you realise how this terrifying political and historical blindness is being held up against real instances of torture (and much else). It also makes a lot of sense when you read director Tanya Gerstle’s program notes, in which she wondered whether this generation really has the right to ‘pretend’ the suffering of others (especially in comfortable, often clueless Australia). Given the level of rigour and self-scrutiny with which the cast and crew clearly took to Invisible Stains, I’d say they’ve earned that right.
Space 28, VCAM, ends tomorrow.
WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING
By Melbourne Theatre Company.
Andrew Bovell’s latest covers equally broad territory in a way that, for me, is far more trite and ineffective. It’s a saga spanning 80 years (the 50s until 2039) and leaps between different time frames, the same characters reappearing in several, sometimes played by different actors. Its scope is pretty massive, and it touches on a whole bunch of big themes. But it didn’t work for me. It felt as if a bunch of boxes were being lined up onstage with a word written on each: incest, suicide, euthanasia, alcoholism, climate change. Then the box was opened and it was empty. Issues were being flagged, but never really investigated, so I had the distinct feeling of seeing a very important play without anything actually taking place.
I think the problem was the genre of theatre employed: the multi-generational family saga. In contrast to Invisible Stains, this was history as incarnated only through a few individual characters. It’s intensely insular, and nobody stands for anything more than their own unique story. To really inflate this sense of narrative claustrophobia, WTRSF repeats the same stories across its entire timeframe, so that the same lines, actions, and relationships recur endlessly. It’s not just going with the old ‘history repeats itself’ riff; it’s almost a paranoid vision in which Everything Connects.
Which is another problem. With different genres an audience will accept different levels of coincidence or obvious narrative implausibility – a huge number of chance occurrences are welcomed in comedy, for instance, and taking that to a ridiculous level is what makes farce work. Surrealism, too, thrives on drawing lines between apparently discrete phenomena (cf. Dali’s ‘paranoid-critical’ method). In realist drama, however, you can’t overindulge in coincidence and expect your audience to suspend their belief. I don’t want to give away details, but WTRSF features so many honestly impossible coincidences that my jaw was hanging. Is Bovell attempting to shift the play out of the world of the Realist Aussie Play? Because if so, it needs a very different production than the one it receives here.
WTRSF might be saying something about repeating the mistakes of the past unless we learn from them, but the point is muddled. Here, the unspoken sins of 80s years ago are still destroying the lives of a future generation. But (SPOILER ALERT) the proposed solution is ludicrous: in a climactic scene, a character is given a bunch of props from his only living relative, who explains that he doesn't know what their significance is but that they hold the key to ending this cycle of misery. What? What the hell is the guy supposed to do with that? Of course we know what all of the Significant Props mean because we've been told already, but no one still alive within the play has a clue. Man, I'd hate to be the guy put in charge of sorting out his history that way. (At least he wasn't given one particular prop pivotal to the plot, I might add. That would really have messed him up).
The cast are fine, sometimes very good. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the London production featured Leah Purcell and Naomi Bentley playing the same character (older and younger) - that would have added a racial reading to the play that doesn't seem that popular right now in Oz. I was also surprised that the minimal set worked quite well, given the grand capacities for more showy production numbers offered by the Sumner. But for a show that has played three national festivals and is being hailed as a modern classic, I was left wondering what people are seeing in this thing. In fact, I wasn’t really left with much beyond that wondering. If anyone can tell me one thing that will stick in the memory – individual or cultural – about this piece, I’m all ears.
I never got around to seeing Bastardy, the doco on actor Jack Charles. By all accounts it's a brilliant film and Charles is a complicated character whose contributions to Australian theatre have been considerable. His life has been just as dramatic; his hundreds of acting credits are matched by a history of addiction, homelessness, criminal activity and the difficulties of living as both gay and Aboriginal over decades in which both weren't (aren't...) exactly positive calling cards in mainstream Aussie culture. Yesterday I received notice of the following: "LEGENDARY ABORIGINAL ACTOR AND CULTURAL LEADER DENIED ACCESS TO THE UK
Jack was recently invited to speak before a series of screenings of Bastardy at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival- one of the most prestigious documentary festivals in the world.
On the 22nd of October Jack was denied entry to the United Kingdom because of his previous criminal record.
Friends and supporters of Jack are now desperately seeking anyone who can leverage intervention on a federal government level;
Please help give Jack this incredibly important cultural opportunity to speak at this international forum."
The full press release is available here: http://www.sendspace.com/file/lhmtv5
As I say, I haven't seen the film so I can't really comment, but thought the story of interest.
Yesterday’s Age review of Black Marrow suggested that it might be “the most disappointing offering” in this year’s MIAF. I would never put it that way, but after looking at the statement from a few angles I have to say that it is indeed a true and correct one. Here’s why I think so: The reviewer (Jordan Beth Vincent) doesn’t call Black Marrow the worst thing in the festival. She doesn’t call the piece ‘bad’. She calls it ‘disappointing’. This is less of a straight statement of quality and more of a relative statement about the gap between expectation and result.
The ‘most’ means that that gap was wider than in any other experience at the festival. It stands to reason, then, that a show could be much ‘worse’ than Black Marrow but not be the most disappointing. That’s possible.
And then there’s the question: disappointing for whom? For JBV, obviously. So in that regard it’s a true thing to say. I don’t know what her expectations were, but I’d guess they were pretty high.
And I agree. I was expecting (and hoping) to get a lot more out of the show than I did. I’m not sure if it was the most disappointing for me (tug-of-war with When the Rain Stops Falling, there). But for the sake of argument, let’s say that it was.
So for two people it was the most disappointing thing in the festival (and another caveat: that we’ve seen. I don’t think it’s possible to see everything in the festival. I might be wrong, but even so, I doubt anyone has seen every single thing).
This is why it’s a true statement. It’s true that for some viewers with particular expectations, Black Marrow was the most disappointing thing (that they’ve seen) in the festival.
What do we do with this fact? Beats the marrow out of me.
Because on opening night there were a lot of people who loved the show. I spoke to a few of them and they very openly enjoyed it and thought it was right on the money. Some others, not so much. So it’s also objectively true to say that Black Marrow is not the most disappointing show in the festival.
Now, what I’m doing here is the figurative equivalent of a blindfolded child bashing the piñata of art with the gnarled baton of relativism and expecting the sweet candy of understanding to shower upon us all. The encouraging hoots of older relatives echo in my ears but do not help me find my invisible target, and when I finally give up after hours of wild swinging and remove the ratty eyemask of subjectivity, I notice that I am alone and the sun has long since set and the folding tables and chairs and, indeed, the piñata itself have been cleared away for some time, so that I am left standing in the dusty moonlit courtyard holding my dumb stick of relativity which, it turns out, had been cleverly swapped for a mouldy, crumbling baguette earlier in the day by some cheeky cousin.
So let me holster my metaphors and get back to the show.
Black Marrow isn’t much like Chunky Move’s stuff. I’m guessing that the two guest choreographers (one from Iceland, one from Belgium) were given pretty free rein. There’s less integration of cutting-edge technology, less concern with using dance to exploring contemporary social life, and very a different style of physicality. It’s almost dance theatre in some respects, and the emphasis is more on visually striking set pieces than choreography per se.
It starts out well: a heap of oozing black substances shifting around the stage, both primordial and post-civilisation. Black detritus, occasionally suggesting living (though non-human) black figures somewhere inside. A spiny, difficult to discern black creature is occasionally glimpsed somewhere in the waves of black effluent. Beneath an expanse of glittery black fabric amorphous somethings rise up and disappear or merge to form single beings before disappearing into the black fluid. If you can’t tell yet, there’s a whole lot of black. In fact there’s nothing but black.
This sequence is probably the most effective in the show, even if you don’t see a single dancer directly. From here a pretty broad and barely related range of scenes play out, including an extended bit in which the dancers become an interlinked, dehumanised machine to the tune of an unrelenting industrial beat; an uncontrolled bit of lounge-lizard style ad-libbing from a Portuguese man in a nifty grey suit; a bewildering piece concerning the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that doesn’t really go anywhere; and a frankly horrible scene in which a man travels into a woman’s womb to retrieve a very special but ultimately silly piece of horrid symbolism.
I’m finding it harder to write about this show the more I think about it. I could elucidate the reasons why I didn’t think it worked on so many levels, but I’m simultaneously aware of why it did work for others. I’ll put it this way: it’s a big, ambitious, deeply problematic piece of performance that has divided people, and that’s normally recommendation enough for me to go out and buy a ticket (I do actually buy a lot of tickets to shows, which surprises some people). To return to the solipsistic beginnings of this review: it was hugely disappointing, for me (like this review). But if I met the me who hadn’t seen it, would I recommend that I do so? Probably. Just so’s the other me could make up his own mind.
At the Merlyn, Malthouse. Ends tonight.
By Peeping Tom
This one is great. Probably my favourite show in the fest. Definitely the best show featuring incontinence that I’ve seen this year. I did have high expectations, again, but they were mostly met. In fact it really was the show that I was expecting to see. Is that a good thing? I’d watched the YouTube clip below and was really excited about the choreography.
This is dance theatre proper, proudly announcing itself as such. It has a narrative of sorts, and characters, but progresses more through movement than storytelling. The characters don’t speak much, and it’s not a literal (or literary) piece. But you get a good hang on who everybody is and where things go.
It centres on an old man and his family (adult children, mostly). It’s pretty much all about these family dynamics and how the process of aging alters them. There are some beautiful sequences which linger in the memory. Ah, I won’t go on as it a show of very pleasant surprises, so if you have a ticket to tonight’s final showing then good on ya.
If not, call the number below and have yourself a grand ol’ evening too.
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