Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Apologia

Melbourne Theatre Company.

There's a certain kind of theatre that strives to give an impression of significance while leaving me feeling as if I've just watched a quadratic equation being solved. Apologia seems fresh from the mould: it observes the classical unities of action, space and time; derives its conflict from generational differences; injects references to another great artist to imbue itself with authority (in this case, Giotto); brings everyone together through a token situation (birthday party); features characters who represent strict ideological positions (US evangelism; 60s socialism; post-capitalist liberalism; self-obsessed consumerism); uses the excuse of celebratory drinking to allow these figures to 'loosen up' and have a bit of verbal biffo; lets the complex fissures between these discursive positions slide into individualistic, personal differences; presents a 'shocking' revelation or two that interrupts everything that's gone before; everyone has a bit of a moment and learns something about themselves and leaves in the morning.

Apologia has it all, but somehow flips the equation around. It's as if playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell has taken the form of the safe, middle-class family drama not as the desired end his script will try to reach, but as the starting point for something that will problematise, rather than resolve, the weltanschauung this kind of theatre posits. Then again, it could well be that it's the performances this production offers which make it more than the sum of its parts. On the page, the central figure of Kristin Miller could be read as a reactionary caricature of social idealism, but there's no way of watching Robyn Nevin in this role without being on her side all the way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Ruben Guthrie


Red Stitch Actors Theatre.

As Picasso put it, every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction. Picasso was a bit of a dick, but I often think it's a nice way to think about narrative. I don't often think that, really. I just thought it was a good way of introducing the point I want to make, and starting with a quote by someone like Picasso might lend an air of authority to proceedings. Actually, I just went trawling for quotes by Picasso with no real point in mind and when I found a neat one I began working on a thesis to justify its inclusion. Though, to be totally honest, that's a lie too – I did know what I wanted to say and recalled that quote and had no idea who said it so I turned to the internet to find out. One thing's for sure: Picasso was definitely a bit of a dick.

Ruben Guthrie is a bit of a dick. A self-serving advertising executive on a whopper salary with a supermodel girlfriend, he finds himself manhandled into an AA meeting after one of his typical nights of drink and drugs proves too much for his loved ones. From there we embark on a sustained investigation of the place booze occupies not merely in Guthrie's life but in Australian society at large. It's tersely written, at times hilarious, and gently provocative without ever appearing didactic in the least. I really liked it.

Creation entails destruction: when you posit the existence of something, you erase the infinite possibilities that formerly existed in that same moment and space. You reduce the boundless field of what might be to the hulking fact of what is. It's a little less certain when you apply this to storytelling – you can make a distinction between plot (what happens) and story (the broader realm of implied possibilities allowed by the plot but not necessarily limited by it). Some of the most effective stories are wondrous precisely because of the difference – a sharp, concise, tiny plot that produces a huge world which exists only in the imagination of its audience. I'm reminded of something Edward Albee said to the effect that the finest piece of playwriting will never need a character to mention anything from their history – rather, the way they act and speak now, in the moment, will reveal everything that's vital about their past. I don't think this is the only way, but it's a fascinating ambition.

Some of the stories I like best – especially the theatre I like best – keep the possibilities alive as long as possible. As they progress, you imagine the different paths they might take and what the story might really be about and when things boil down to an inevitable resolution (or at least an ending) those other paths stay lit somewhere in your mind.

The obvious paths offered by the story of Ruben Guthrie are typical of the addiction narrative – will that bloody Guthrie beat the demon drink, or will he fall off the wagon? The great strength of Brendan Cowell's writing is that he answers yes, and yes. And yes and yes and yes. While narratives are usually resolved, the life of a recovering addict (the life of anyone, I guess) never resolves itself with the same kind of finality. Even death doesn't really mean the end of a story, since that story always bleeds into other stories. And stories themselves are just ways of ordering things far more messy and polluted. So the apparent trajectory of Ruben Guthrie (will he or won't he?) turns out to be less important than the other questions raised along the way – who is he? Why is he? What could he be?

This is one of Red Stitch's sharpest productions of late – the performances hit every mark, and the casting is just perfect. Nobody tries to be liked, but at the same time there's an empathy extended to every one of the flawed characters presented. And it's a tough ask; Cowell's script is sophisticated enough to render each of his creations with an invigorating complexity. A dying man can still disappoint us. A woman who triumphs over her own problems can still make others' lives harder. Parents can want the best for their child while delivering their worst.

There was a point in the show where I thought it was finishing and sat up thinking “great show, stunning ending, you bloody bewdy etc” before another scene began. There were at least another fifteen minutes to go, perhaps more. I could have walked away entirely satisfied at that point, and in the end I felt one of the later scenes was a bit of a let-down after what had come before (it fell back on a style of writing that seemed more obvious and strained). But really, it only added to the piece – if it had ended when it felt natural to do so, it wouldn't have been true to the kind of life it was enacting. There can be death, there can be redemption, there can be things of any magnitude, and then there will be the next scene.

At Red Stitch until March 5.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: A Behanding in Spokane


Melbourne Theatre Company.

A recent comment by Chris Summers over at Theatre Notes got me rethinking my responses to the MTC's latest. So far I've been feeling that my reaction accords with the general consensus, which could be summed up as follows:

Strong production of a very darkly comic play; excellent performances; some laugh-out-loud moments; not much depth but makes the most of its modest material.

Summers points out a flaw in this mild critique – it completely overlooks the possibility that A Behanding in Spokane features some profoundly offensive racism. This wasn't missed in US productions of the play which inspired a range of protests. I hadn't come across anyone making much of a point about it here, however, and that includes myself, despite the niggling concerns I'd had when watching the production.

Let's back up a step for the latecomers. A Behanding... was written by Martin McDonagh, Irish playwright of some renown, who penned a bunch of black comedies in the 90s and then dipped out of theatre for a good 15 years before returning with this number. Unlike his earlier work, it's set in contemporary America, and speaks to racial history and racist violence in the US on a number of levels. The monstrous figure at its centre is a one-handed psychopathic white supremacist who lost his paw at the hands of mysterious hill-billies decades ago and is on a quest to recover the missing glove-filler. A couple of deadbeat weed-dealers try to sell him the hand of someone else and quickly find they've chosen the wrong one-handed psychopathic white supremacist upon whom to pull a swiftie. Locked in a no-tell hotel room with the gun-waving killer, their only real hope lies in the figure of a truly strange reception dude whose notions of fatalism, revenge and rescue make him something less than an ideal saviour.

I'm not giving too much away there, since there are a bunch of cool surprises that are worth experiencing first-hand (hurr hurr). As I say, it's a pretty funny piece and there's a nice fight using severed hands and Ben Grant's sound design features excellent and strategic deployment of banjo. While there are obvious nods to the classic Western and the revenge drama, it doesn't leave you plumbing subterranean meanings to work out what it's all about. You laugh, maybe cringe a bit, head off for a late supper.

Which is the odd problem here. I'll be the first to call a production on its odious race politics but found a muting of affect when watching Behanding. There's racism in the piece, for sure – it's all about a violent bigot terrorising two people, one of whom is black (I forgot to mention that before). There's great swathes of racist abuse and much use of offensive epithets but I don't think that's exactly at the core of the controversy in the US, which is more about the characterisation of an African-American as a kowtowing clown patched together from film and television cliches. It's not necessarily that a white Irishman can't write a black American character, but if you're going to write a play that puts race front and centre, that handling of race certainly merits extra scrutiny.

So why didn't I leave Behanding with my hackles up? I don't think it's about a cultural distance from the US, for me, although I guess some Australian audience members wouldn't really care one way or another when it comes to the massively problematic legacy of US racial history. And I don't think it's because people who find fault in the play are overreading; if you find racism there, you do you should feel free to point it out.

I guess it's that the play's moral compass seems epitomised by that weirdo reception guy, Mervyn. Late in the piece a guy points a gun in his face and asks “why do you want to die?” He replies that he doesn't want to die. He just, well, doesn't care either way, and the logic of his character's actions so far becomes clear: he's able to take the narrative in bizarre directions because he's completely unburdened by an instinct for self-preservation. This means he could be a hero or villain at any one moment, and in a way shatters the very notion of either.

But A Behanding in Spokane seems to me to be on Mervyn's side all the way. If it's racist, it's because it doesn't care one way or the other. Its racism feels like the product of disinterest, not concern – as if McDonagh didn't set out to ignite bonfires of passionate outrage but just started playing with some matches in an underventilated hotel room. If I left the theatre thinking “I enjoyed it but didn't really care about anything I saw,” then I'm sort of becoming Mervynesque myself, and I wonder if the play positions its audience thus. If we shrug off its racism, it might be because the play does the same.

I wonder what to make of all that.

Sumner Theatre until March 9.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: Invisible Atom


By 2b Theatre

Look at this image. Look at it. Does it make you want to rush out and buy a ticket to this show? It doesn't make me want to rush out and buy a ticket to this show. I know people don't rush out to buy tickets to shows these days but anyway. Invisible Atom is about as visually rich as this photo suggests. Which is strange, because in terms of writing, directing and performance it's bursting with ideas and imagination, all of which are astutely rendered. I don't know why the design is so drab and lifeless. It seems as if the entire production was consciously intended to prevent the possibility of a more compelling promotional image.

I know you probably didn't come here looking for Capital Ideas About Promotional Images By Someone Untrained In Marketing and Publicity and it's not like I'm some kind of Johnny Sparkles who wants every show to look like Hairspray. I've seen plenty of productions with similar designs that really hit the mark, such as Elbow Room's There, which shared more than a few common points with Invisible Atom, or last year's wonderful 5 Days in March, also in the Fairfax. But in those cases the extreme minimalism serves to focus our attention to a needlepoint. Here, it seems that design was just overlooked.

Or, rather, that this was a problem of context. I had the pervasive feeling throughout the affair that this was a superb small production in a large room. It was intimate and centripetal and wants to be shared but can't fill the Fairfax Studio, even if a fair bit of the space has been blocked off. It's not that the Arts Centre shouldn't have programmed it, since it's exactly the kind of piece that deserves to tour here, and I can't really fault the production for not reinventing itself in a way more appropriate to the theatre – I doubt the team had the resources to do a lengthy new development in Melbourne before the season. It's somewhere in the middle, perhaps.

Then again, I'm also inflating the problem quite a bit here.

Because, really, Invisible Atom has a lot to recommend it. It's smart writing, full of allusion and subtle metaphor. Anthony Black can hold the entire show on his own, and Ann-Marie Kerr's direction prevents the piece from getting too bound up in its own clever-cloggedness.

What's it about, right, right. Well, Atom is a guy who was abandoned as a child but who has built a hugely prosperous life working as a stockbroker, with a terribly expensive house and designer couches and big TV and a lovely wife and newborn boy. A series of philosophical crises see him embarking on a slightly unhinged journey to discover the truth of his parentage and his discoveries don't just result in a re-evaluation of his life but have implications that resonate across history.

There's plenty to think about, here: the work stitches together a fabulist tale out of particle physics and critiques of advanced capitalism (there's a throwaway line about an “invisible hand,” making this the only production I've ever seen that makes economic theory in-jokes). Adam Smith and Isaac Newton are the presiding authorities in Atom's life, and his struggle is really that of anyone attempting to free themselves from the yoke of those bastards.

The story is ultimately a fairly humanist one that returns to people as a way of escaping ideas; the internal correspondences are at times too twee, and the resolution lacks the ambition which has preceded it. But if it seems as if I have a whole bunch of quibbles about the show, that's all they are. Invisible Atom is about as rewarding as most of the work being produced in Melbourne today. Just a bit plain-looking.

Fairfax Studio until Saturday.

Monday, February 7, 2011

(Not a) Review: Don Parties On

 Photo: Jeff Busby

Last year a friend told me how she counts the lights when bored during a theatre production. It turns out this is a more common practice than I'd expected, and I've since come across several people who do the same thing. I wasn't exactly counting the lights during the first half of Don Parties On, but I did find myself doing something not dissimilar. While I was watching, a part of my mind idly began listing the productions I saw last year which genuinely surprised me.

The list grew pretty long. It began with moments that honestly moved me, from the body-slamming ecstasy in Grit Theatre's Us to Terry Yeboah's wracking sobs in Acts of Deceit to the stirring final sequence of MWT's Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime. I was also thinking about the authentic shock of Thyestes' more outrageous sequences, the physical fear I felt during And Then Something Fell On My Head, the uncontrollable laughter induced by both The Pajama Men and Asher Treleaven, the simple fact that I could watch the Four Larks band for hours regardless of the plays they accompany, the giddy insanity of an Imperial Ice Stars show (which inevitably leave me whacking the arm of my plus one screaming LOOK AT WHAT THEY ARE DOING THERE!). There were lots of instances where an otherwise flawed production had a sudden point that bolted me to my seat; and, of course, there were shows that seemed to me so ill-conceived or badly produced that my response was equally passionate, in a negative sense. When I got home I had a quick flick through the catalogue of whatevers I saw in 2010 and soon had around 85 that provoked an immediate memory of something impactful that I took away from the experience.

The thing about Don Parties On is that I didn't find myself having any particular response at all. Which is fine. That happens all the time. The play's not really aimed at me, I suppose, and Williamson's style isn't my favourite kind of theatre. I liked Let the Sunshine more than most critics, but it wasn't on that little mental list of mine.

I don't begrudge Williamson his success, either. I think anyone who makes a living from writing plays deserves a nod. And while there's some validity to the argument that his prominence in main stage programming prevents new voices from occupying that space, it's also true that the financial success of plays such as Don Parties On allow companies to program “riskier” work from lesser known artists. This year's Lawler season is a direct result of the earnings of The Drowsy Chaperone. I sincerely hope that DPO's profits in some way assist smaller productions in MTC's calendar, which this year includes work by Robert Reid and Lally Katz, for egs.

Williamson has penned some duds, as he admits. So have Reid and Katz. So have Rayson and Murray-Smith and Romeril and Wright and any other Australian playwright who springs to mind. That's cool, too. I've written plenty of shit. I might be doing the same thing right now.

Look at this! I'm totally defending Williamson. There's more: even though I don't personally dig his plotting, characterisation, dialogue, handling of themes or choices of subject matter, I'm happy that there's a sizeable audience who do. I might sit there utterly bewildered by their laughter, even worrying that it's almost dangerously conservative, but that's not a strong argument against their right to laugh.

What really got to me about Don Parties On was the fact that so many people I know were eager to get along to the thing. People who only go to the theatre perhaps once a year wanted a ticket to opening night. The play is being treated as Event Theatre. Don Parties On isn't Event Theatre. It's a play that achieves its success by providing what its audience expects and wants. Again, that's not a bad thing. But to me it felt as if half of Melbourne was lining up to be the first to check out a new Starbucks, or catch the premiere episode of the new season of Packed to the Rafters, or snap up a Michael Buble album the second it hit the shelves.

Williamson is a franchise, and like many successful franchises he pleases a lot of people by sticking to a general formula and not serving up something completely unexpected. Obviously he tinkers with the recipe, but there's a certain safety his core audience can feel buying a ticket to one of his plays. The same can be said of all kinds of artists, including those that aim to offend or confuse. The shock of the new is itself an expectation some people bring to the theatre, but novelty isn't necessarily a more worthy goal than mildly predictable entertainment.

I'm not reviewing Don Parties On properly here, but rather the response it's produced. Before it had premiered, it had created the buzz of an major event, and since it opened it has been subjected to critical scrutiny from all corners. I've probably read a dozen long reviews, countless blog comments, responses from Williamson himself, even a two-part (!) essay in The Age by Julian Meyrick. I am bewildered. I can't think of another local play, great or rubbish, to provoke so many words from commentators, or to be given so much space in the public sphere. That a kind of average, middle-of-the-road play has managed such a feat is the one way in which Don Parties On moves me at all.

I left the play at interval. I knew that the piece itself would be granted plenty of attention by other reviewers and take up a lot of premium newspaper real estate that could otherwise be given to more interesting work that's less often discussed publicly. It didn't need my own shoulder-shrugging response, the very existence of which would only add to the sense that the play is something eventful. I didn't want to contribute to the wealth of words which have been dedicated to this play. And I just did.