The other day I woke up in a real funk. The emotional kind, not the aromatic variety, though a late Fringe night meant I'd had reheated Indian for dinner so you never know. I may as well have woken up in a massive bovine fart haze, though, was how nose-wrinkingly grumpy I was. It had been a week or so building up, mostly unnoticed, but the source of this malaise was pretty obvious to me.
It's the small audiences at certain shows. Not that small audiences are unexpected at Fringe – I'm always guaranteed to catch a few where I'm one of just a handful of onlookers. I've even heard of a show that went on despite the arrival of only a single attendee, and to my great joy said lone spectator actually proceeded to good-naturedly heckle. That's the spirit.
I know great productions often go unnoticed. That's the way it is, and has probably always been so, historically speaking. But when I – or anyone in my line of biz – do everything conceivable to generate interest in an act, and it proves for naught, it makes me wonder. Oooh, and it makes me wonder.
I'll explain through a series of reviews and then I'm going to listen to Giorgio Moroder and execute a series of backflips while considering the Cosby Sweater Paradox.
After I saw Grit Theatre's Us in 2010 (and again earlier this year) you couldn't shut me up about it. I raved about it in print, named it one of my two top shows in an end-of-year wrap-up (along with Bell's Twelfth Night), banged on and on during multiple segments of Richard Watts' SmartArts program on RRR, praised it in various social media, and so on and so forth. It won Best Performance at last year's Fringe, a title it shared with Hayloft's Thyestes (and that was a show so popular you basically had to track down and murder a ticketholder so as to wear their skin in order to get in). Us also scored Best Independent Production and Best Ensemble at the Green Room Awards, and netted strong reviews across the board.
Pond is the company's next project and on opening night there were plenty of empty seats. Come on.
It's not necessary viewing, by any stretch. Where Us tapped into a vital essence, Pond is characterised by absence. It's cold, monotonous, empty, and deliberately so. It presents us with a couple who've retreated from the world to their apartment, where their only connection to humanity (and often each other) is via technology. They're online all the time, occasionally pausing to order food to be delivered. There are key moments in which they interact directly – blunt statements of commitment, mechanical sex – but even these are leeched of real connection. The point here seems obvious: that life in a 'connected' world can be anything but.
The set is visually lush but the soundtrack is a better indicator of the production's tone. Initially it's just a quiet hum of white noise of which you're not particularly aware; as the show proceeds the buzz of audible chaos becomes more apparent. It's an aural replication of the flow of information that is the weave of the fabric of daily life, and this is what Pond seems to be: not the content of the tapestry, but its warp and woof. It's dissatisfying theatre. Like life.
In its vacancy it reminded me of slow cinema. Not the interminably long shots of Tarkovsky, which imbue the material world with a vibrancy bordering on the transcendent. More the modern flatness of Antonioni. Here's one of the most memorable sequences in my viewing history, the ending of The Passenger. Was bored by the film. Jaw dropped at the end.
If you can't watch it all the way through, there's Pond's problem. You can't understand the impossibility of the scene without submitting to its duration. And who has the patience to get through a clip like that? Not when you could skip to the end or go check Facebook or something.
CANDY B – AUSTRALIAN BOOTY
Exhibit B: Candy Bowers was one of the members of Sista She, and whenever they put on a Comedy Fest show I'd drag along various unsuspecting friends who you wouldn't put in the target demographic for queer feminist hip-hop comedy cabaret. Every time, the response was exactly the same: less than ten minutes in, my plus-one for the night would be grabbing my arm and whispering “we need to gather everyone we know and come back to this party again and again”.
Candy's first solo show nabbed Best Performance at 2009's Fringe. This year's follow-up should be playing to full houses. It's a brassy look at Australia's shyness towards the big, be it booty, blackness or dancefloor bravado. It's hard to rouse a crowd to hip-shaking action (or activism) when you're playing to a cool dozen, and I want to imagine what this show could be in front of 200 punters. Bowers has the charm to win over a reluctant crowd, but she needs that crowd first.
As it is, the show goes up and down. Her routines have stuck with me – confessions of her romantic obsession with red-headed blokes, the eye-opening racism of former boyfriends such as the one who had to mention that his girlfriend was black at every turn. The show is patchy as a whole, and hasn't yet struck the right balance between comedy and reality, as Bowers has put it. The projected visuals, too, don't match the sophistication the piece deserves. But there's a killer act in here trying to hit its stride, and I don't know how you do that playing to ten sympathetic souls.
LAWRENCE MOONEY IN AN INDECISIVE BAG OF DONUTS
Another Friday night gig as one of about 20 or so audience members. Unlike the previous two productions, this one arrives with rock-solid reviews and word-of-mouth from its Comedy Festival season. Mooney is one of those comic's comics who garner unmitigated praise from their fellows, and people perpetually wonder why he isn't one of the most popular stand-ups in the country. I've heard his name used in the same breath as Louis C. K., for instance, who's easily considered one of the finest examples of the form in the world today.
The subject of this show sounds pretty standard – Mooney narrates a day spent procrastinating when he should be writing the show itself. He does the cleaning, walks the dog, visits a shopping centre. But the writing here is so acute, the performance so rich, that you rapidly forget the quotidian nature of the material. In fact, it's remarkable precisely because he extracts so much that's fresh from within the familiar.
I didn't love it quite as much as most (actually, everyone, from what I've heard around the traps). That's just because it doesn't do so much that's inventive with the form itself, which is more about my preferences. But I can't deny that this is one of the sharpest shows you're likely to catch this year, and I can't imagine a soul who would walk away disappointed.
Enough of the moaning: here's a show that did get a decent audience, and that's the most intriguing thing about it. Theatre by people with disabilities faces its own problems attracting crowds. It's a true crime that Ganesh vs the Third Reich at Malthouse hasn't sold out yet, as it's an astonishing production unlike anything I've seen. And despite the much-publicised protests by a small number of people decrying the depiction of the Hindu deity (most of whom haven't seen the show), I don't think this would have hurt box office. There are committed theatregoers who don't rush to see theatre of disability, however.
That's a bigger issue than can be addressed here, but it is worth pointing out its flip side. Australia is actually a world leader in the area of disability arts, largely to do with the de-institutionalisation of the 80s which saw people with disabilities moving from private and state care into the community, finding more employment, independence and social visibility than ever before. This hasn't occurred around the world, and it makes us the envy of some. There are countless ongoing problems, of course, and access isn't universal, care is far from perfect, participation in public life still riddled with discrimination, etc, etc. But it's of note that Melbourne can support several disability arts festivals and a healthy number of groups which produce fine work, even if it often goes unnoticed by many.
I didn't know anything about FOG's Cumulus Nimbus going in, and it took me a few minutes to work out what I was seeing. By the halfway mark I was enthralled. It's a large-scale work (I didn't count the numbers on-stage but it was more than a dozen). It's not the theatre or physical theatre made by the likes of Back to Back or Rawcus, but is made up of dance sequences loosely improvised by the performers around particular provocations. The mass scenes which book-end the piece are fine, but it's in the solos and duets that a seductive and sophisticated dynamic emerges. Each is accompanied by an improvised score performed by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, and the interplay between movement and sound is absolutely live; you can never tell who is responding to whom; or, rather, the relationship is so syncretic that the question doesn't even make sense.
A lot of classically trained dancers find it very hard to unlearn the choreography that's been etched into their bodies (that anti-choreography forms the impetus behind Deborah Hay's work, for example). I suppose from a dancer's perspective Cumulus Nimbus would be the equivalent of 'outsider art', then, but if it achieves the goal of so many highly-skilled performers that conclusion might be flawed. Moreover, where shows as Back to Back's Ganesh explicitly address the agency of the performers (is this really their own work?) there's no such question whatsoever here. We're not only watching the performers create their own expression, we're watching it happen in real time, right before us. At times the enactments of decisions were breathtaking, and induced audible gasps from the audience.
That sizeable audience was the other revelation for me, here. At least half were people with some form of disability themselves, and many found deeply personal connections to particular sequences. A movement that appeared entirely abstract to me would elicit a murmur or nod from someone who clearly found in it the articulation of an experience or thought or relationship that I missed. What's more, the whole show had me reflecting on the idea of arts access from the other end – not simply who gets a chance to be on a stage, but who gets to watch it. What are the barriers that face someone with very particular needs, someone who requires easy access to a bathroom, for instance, or who is very vocal throughout a production? Do they have the opportunity to see our leading actors on the main stage? Are there cinema screenings that cater to them? Live music? I honestly don't know, but would like to.
One thing for certain, though, was that this was the most diverse audience of which I've ever been a member, and that's saying something.
Theatreworks, season ended.
realeyes featured a number of performers I recognised from FOG as well as some familiar Rawcus faces. Its ambitions aren't the same as Cumulus Nimbus'; here, the lives of its cast make up the matter, and their hopes and anxieties are played out for the bulk of the piece. It wasn't as successful for me, as a lot of sequences seemed to stop just when they were getting interesting, and the whole seemed disjointed. I did get a strong sense of a number of the personalities behind it, though, and a few sequences (one monologue in which a performer described the clouds in her head, especially) offered glimpses of real beauty.
The audience here was, again, small, but it was interesting to see so many actors associated with Red Stitch in the crowd (RS ensemble member Sarah Sutherland co-directed the show). If the general public isn't rushing to see theatre of disability, it's good that people who do work in the arts are seeking it out.
(And on a side note, I saw that MTC were looking for a deaf male actor for a production next year, which is encouraging. One of my only quibbles with the company's current production of Clybourne Park was the casting of a hearing actor in a deaf role, though it wasn't a major objection and sort of fell away in the second half. I don't imagine there are too many roles for deaf actors on our main stages, though, so it could have been an opportunity missed. Good to see that opportunity being made the most of next year, hey?)
Chapel Off Chapel, season ended.