Malthouse Theatre's first 2011 season was announced last night – the first under incoming Artistic Director Marion Potts – and while I'll get to the line-up in a bit, I thought it might be worth a quick look at the company she's taking over and the fellers who are vacating the building as she arrives.
Now, all of God's children got blogs; there'll be no peaceable garden of murmuring agreement when it comes to assessing the achievements of misters Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong. I'm writing about the two as a unit, as well, because while Kantor has been the public face of Malthouse since he took over in 2005, almost every decision made by the company can been equally attributed to Armstrong. The two have a remarkable dynamic and I think their jobs have often overlapped, so to discuss them in isolation doesn't make much sense to me. The fact that they've both decided to move on at the same time makes the change of leadership at Malthouse even more momentous. Things will definitely look different in a year or two.
To run a company such as Malthouse, you've probably got to be a fool, an elf, a gardener and a monkey. Sometimes it seems that Armstrong and Kantor were gamblers with all their money on three chords and the truth; there were definitely productions in the last five years that ran on optimism rather than certainty. There were flops, financial and critical. These were remarked upon in their time, and will be part of the legacy The Lads leave behind.
But the least remarked upon thing that Kantor and Armstrong did is also, for me, the most fascinating. Wherever you look in the arts world, companies and individuals are searching for more audiences. I've long had a particular stink-eyed look reserved for this notion, since it seems to me that most of these artists would be better off forgetting about more audiences and focusing on better audiences. Anyone can pin down Joe Public in a cave and force them to watch their shadow puppet show, and if they're arrogant enough they'll be convinced that Joe will be improved by the experience. But I think it's more fruitful to find the right monkey who'll evolve along with the work, or the fool who'll reflect back some of its wisdom, or the elf who'll point out its hiccups, or the gardener who'll take something away and make new life on their own.
When Playbox became Malthouse, it didn't just try to expand its pre-existing audience: it turned away from them. It said: we know what you want, but we're going to give you something else. If it don't suit you, take your business elsewhere. Malthouse wasn't just looking for a bigger audience, but a different audience. Which it found. Of course, plenty of Playbox subscribers stuck around and probably liked what they found. And some probably didn't.
This is really the challenge facing the MTC, which is certainly looking to attract younger audiences and those who haven't felt catered to in the past. But against this is a clear concern toward the existing audience. The MTC doesn't want to alienate its current subscribers by reinventing itself, and why would it? That would be damn fool crazy talk. But sometimes, when Winter is icumen in, damn fool crazy talk has its own rewards.
Winter is icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm,
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.
Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,
So 'gainst the winter's balm.
Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,
Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.
2011. So who's on first?
Potts is kicking off the year with an adaptation of John Ford's TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE. I can't remember if it's technically a revenge tragedy but it's sure one of the goriest and taboo-breaking plays of the seventeenth century. Lots of stabbing and eye-gouging and waving hearts around on swords and the central incestuous relationship will probably still be an eyebrow raiser to contemporary audiences. I first saw this play in a bloody production at the Carlton Courthouse maybe 15 years ago – I'm looking forward to seeing what it will be like with the full might of the Malthouse behind it.
Next up is solo rendition of Beckett's THE END – haven't we been spoilt for Beckett lately? Good stuff. This one's performed by Robert Menzies and directed by Eamon Flack, who will be a welcome addition to the Malthouse as he's a good fit with the company aesthetic. In contrast to Tis Pity this will likely be a very intimate piece, I'd say.
Chunky Move's CONNECTED might be the work I'm most looking forward to in this season, if only for the collaboration with US artist Reuben Margolis. Here's a quick profile of Margolis, and when I first saw this I thought “New. Favourite. Artist.”
I've got no idea what Connected will end up being, but I can't wait to find out. Anyone who dug the interaction between technology and nature and the pure mystery of the animate/inanimate dynamic played out on stage should probably check in on this one. Interesting to see Gideon Obarzaneck moving from the ethereality of light sculpture (Glow, Mortal Engine) to the mechanical materiality of the automaton.
Then there's IN GLASS, a Sydney dance piece by Narelle Benjamin. It centres on the idea of the mirror with all of its connotations. Again, I don't really know how it will turn out but it does feature two pretty incredible dancers, Kristina Chan and Paul White.
AMPLIFICATION was Balletlab's first production and the only one by the company that I've never seen, so big ups to Phillip Adams for next year's remount and the Malthouse folks for giving it a home.
Obarzaneck's back with FAKER, another fascinating conceit. I'm not sure why the precise starting point of Faker wasn't mentioned last night – maybe they don't want to spoil it – but it's a very exciting one. Obarzaneck received an email from a dancer a while back while charged him with all kinds of problems – this one-man show sees the choreographer looking at his own practice and engaging in a kind of self-questioning that seems very daring. Whether it will be an honest assessment or a performance masquerading as the same will have to wait and see.
BAAL sees Simon Stone directing one of Brecht's first works with a couple of Black Lung boys in the lead. It's a nasty, funny, wonderfully dark play with no redemption or grace; if Thyestes is anything to go by, it should be a huge hit.
I don't know Sydney writer Vanessa Bates' other work but her play PORN. CAKE is an odd post-dramatic comedy with touches of magic and a real linguistic playfulness. It's sort of in the mould of a lot of interesting writing coming from the UK at the moment, or perhaps some German stuff with more of a focus on social rather than political dynamics. You could say it's about excess and obscenity and how everything is the new everything and cake is porn and porn is cake but it's the kind of open work that may end up completely unrecognisable by the time it hits the stage. Pamela Rabe directs, which another unexpected ingredient to the mix.
A GOLEM STORY is Lally Katz' take on the classic Rabbi of Prague story. It's always puzzled me how the golem figure hasn't attained the same traction as Frankenstein's monster or the vampire or werewolves or whatever in the modern age, since its a genuinely creepy and resonant myth. Not the weedy CGI gimp from the Lord of the Rings, but the towering man of clay fashioned by mystics to protect the powerless or carry out their own nefarious schemes. Katz is pretty faithful to the original tale here but injects disturbing undercurrents and an element of metafiction that meshes very well with the strangeness of the source material; Michael Kantor returns to direct, and while Katz has had a long history with Malthouse Theatre under Kantor's artistic direction, I can't off the top of me noggin recall him ever directing one of her works himself (anyone? anyone?). Should make for an intriguing dynamic for that alone.
The first half of the year is rounded out with a return season of Arena's MOTH, which was a highlight of 2010 and was missed by hundreds who couldn't score a ticket. A fine way to round out Potts' first season, which to me seems to present both a new and original direction for the company while maintaining connections with and respect for the five years preceding it. Which is, says I, a Capital Idea.