Earlier this year Guardian film critic Mark Kermode wrote a provocative essay entitled “How to Make an Intelligent Blockbuster and Not Alienate People”. It's since been removed from the Observer website, but a few of its points have stayed with me, and I reckon they're a good way into some of the concerns I've been feeling towards the local theatre scene here in Melbourne.
Kermode argues that not one Hollywood blockbuster has died at the box office due to bad reviews. Even films that have been universally panned – take Pearl Harbour, for instance – have actually raked in (very) significant profits. In part this is due to certain complex structures of film distribution which aren't relevant here; more interesting is Kermode's point about “diminished expectation”. We expect 'event' films to be big and dumb. For a critic to point that out doesn't alter our moviegoing habits. We go into a blockbuster with diminished expectations, and if it does turn out to have something intelligent going for it (Kermode cites Christopher Nolan's films as examples), well, that's just a bonus. An exception.
I wonder if a similar set of reduced expectations exist in regard to Australian theatre. I'm not just talking about committed theatregoers, whoever they are. Whatever anyone might like to believe, people don't go to the theatre the way they go to the movies, or even to big budget musicals. I'm pretty sure, even without empirical evidence, that there's a decent slab of Australia that thinks of the theatre as important, culturally significant, worth supporting but generally not that fun. Not relevant to their lives, not expressive of their beliefs, not challenging to them in a useful way, not preferable over a night in front of the Tube if it comes down to a choice. They don't expect that theatre will be great, though they'll appreciate it if it is.
The same diminished expectations probably exist amongst a lot of regular theatregoers, too. They (we) love what live performance can do, and have been witness to astonishing, perhaps even life-changing works of art. But have you never heard an arts-loving friend say something along the lines of “it's been a long day and I really wish we could just be watching a dumb movie instead of going to this show tonight...” Exchanging one set of diminished expectations for another, because at least a half-witted film offers the rum soporific of colour and movement and mind-lulling spectacle.
All mere speculation, but it's been bubbling away in my mind for a while. Something rose to the surface when I visited FOG's Cumulus Nimbus recently, and before the performance began a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked where I was from. I was sort of confused by the question. I'm... from... all over. I don't understand. It dawned on me that he wanted to know why I was at the show. Surely I had some kind of investment, or was involved somehow, whether directly or more generally in the area of theatre of disability.
Do so many people really take a punt on a show just because it's written by David Williamson, or stars that person on the telly, or looks like it has a bit of money behind it? More disturbingly, to people take a punt on that show despite the fact that it's been panned by the critics, but can't be roused to fork out for a universally lauded number just because it's playing in a backyard in Brunswick or looks like it might have been cobbled together on goodwill and optimism?
Why didn't Back to Back Theatre's Ganesh Versus The Third Reich sell out every seat before it even opened?
GANESH VERSUS THE THIRD REICH
Though I doubt it had a negative impact on Malthouse's box office, the protests which accompanied this production did put some audience members in a bit of a quandary. An American Hindu evangelist called for the play to be banned, sight unseen, and some members of the local Hindu community picked up this plea and put the same demands to Malthouse Theatre, Back to Back and Melbourne Festival. To the credit of all involved, quite a lot of effort was made to conciliate, but as far as I know there were still protesters out the front for the final showing of the season.
Part of the problem, for me, comes from a somewhat blurry categorical difference between text and scripture. Most of us, even the religious, don't have much truck with scripture these days – with writing that bears a Platonic connection with some essence we might call divine. Rather, we're more Aristotelian: texts are something to be interpreted, and it's in that interpretation, that articulation of meaning, that meaning makes itself. This could even be seen as a default position in contemporary theatre, where acting itself is synonymous with interpretation (as opposed to the production of an ecstatic link with a transcendent essence). The closest theatre gets to scripture today might be something such as Beckett, but even though we're not supposed to tamper with his hallowed words there's still a requirement that they be subjected to at least some baseline of interpretation. Elsewhere theatremakers speak of staying true to the 'spirit' of a text, but that's not quite the same as treating the text itself as a holy artefact.
Is there a place in a secular society for scripture? For a literal reading of a sacred text, and the construction of boundaries regarding who is permitted to touch? Or must we all treat texts as inert resources to be played with, their significance only found in that very play?
No answers from this quarter, especially given that Ganesh Versus The Third Reich is one of the most impactful pieces of performance I can recall. It's ferocious and hilarious, a thrust to the heart, and of course it directly speaks to the politics of representation on many, many levels. That it's created and performed by artists who themselves are often spoken for, rather than to, only adds to the complexity.
Here we have the all-powerful elephant-headed deity Ganesh travelling across Nazi Germany to reclaim the sacred symbol of swastika from Hitler. There are other strands to the narrative – a young Jewish escapee fleeing persecution; an encounter with Mengele, the “Angel of Death” – but this central story is embedded in a much more interesting frame in which a theatre company is attempting to stage the work only to find that its politics are tearing the group apart. What seems to be most at stake here is power and agency: who is the creator of this work? Does the director/actor dynamic necessarily lead to inequities of agency? What's the audience's role in this? There are way too many questions brought up in the short span of the show than I could possibly describe here – and indeed, it's one of those rare productions where I walked out not wanting to talk about what I'd seen for fear of reducing it to mere words, while at the same time feeling compelled to talk to make sure that it was something shared. But there are moments in this piece that cut to the quick, and definitely left me both shattered and profoundly reassured of the potency of contemporary performance. This is one of the world's leading theatre companies creating work of the greatest significance. Wish more people had seen it.
Of a vastly different order is this maddening attempt to create an immersive experience of homelessness for audiences. I've no doubt whatsoever that its intentions are pure, but the result is an anaemic pantomime that reduces the harsh, lived reality of destitution to a fun romp through the back streets of St Kilda.
There is a gesture towards the kind of self-awareness made evident in Back to Back's work – while it's billed as a walking tour, we arrive to be greeted by a tour operator who is clearly divorced from the world into which she is supposed to introduce us. When her regular guide fails to show up, she's aghast at the possibility that she'll have to take on the job herself. From here things get inexplicably silly, as a magician, a 'soul reader' and someone in a purple elephant costume show up and start engaging in some business so important that it's kept top secret from the audience. We're eventually led up the street past some actors playing homeless people, including someone dressed like a bag lady in a shocking fright wig, and a character named Wozza who joins the tour uninvited (Chris Bunworth's performance here is the highlight of the piece, and one of the only things with which I was able to connect).
Soon enough we're in Theatreworks, dressed up as a soup kitchen, and more fussing and bussing goes on before we're thrown headlong into a first-hand experience of homelessness and by that I mean we're told that we're suddenly homeless and have to squabble over a bunch of mattresses and cardboard to construct a shelter for the night. To reduce such an experience to a wacky exercise in cubby-house construction is a baffling choice, bordering on offensive. But it's sadly about as far as Site Unseen takes us – forcibly absent is anything that might really challenge its audience, replaced by a sanitised series of encounters which make sleeping rough seem little more than a serious inconvenience. There's no real sense of violence, of danger, of the emotional and psychological effects of homelessness, of the desperation it can engender, even though we're sometimes told of these things throughout the work. The closest we get is a short sequence in which the recorded thoughts of Melbourne's real homeless are played during a moment of darkness. It's a flash of reality before we return to the mild and mediated performance that surrounds it.
If this were just a shot that failed to hit its mark, it'd pass by without much comment. But it's what's at stake here that makes it so much more (and less). If we approach this with lowered expectations simply because it's 'community theatre' then we're slighting what community theatre can be. This is not enough.
Or, judge for yourself. Until Oct 22.