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.
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