Friday, October 28, 2011

POST MELBOURNE FESTIVAL POST: RISKY BIZ


A few weeks ago, as the caboose-end of the Melbourne Festival was trundling into view, I wrote a short piece for The Sunday Age addressing the notion of artistic risk. There'd been a couple of disappointments in an otherwise strong program, and some people (non-Festival goers) had asked how these works had managed to make it into such a prestigious festival. For me it's hardly even a question – as Francis Ford Coppola puts it in this interview: “An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby.”

It's both an exaggeration and a simplification, but you could argue that the act of creation is by definition a risk – otherwise it's just manufacturing. As Artistic Director Brett Sheehy puts it, his role is one of “calculated” risk, but there's no equation that will result in a positive for every audience member every time. Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, of course. But since my Sunday Age piece was in the news section I couldn't really present a few of the opinions I have on the concept of risk as it's frequently invoked in the arts world. Often it seems to bleed in from the world of business – a kind of empty buzzword that doesn't require interrogation but doesn't really say much, either. When an emerging artist and a main stage director talk of risk, are they talking about the same thing? Does risk mean experimentation, speculation, gambling, uncertainty, investment, courage? Rather than pondering what constitutes a 'good' or 'bad' risk, I've been thinking about what the term means in practice today, and how as a structural concept it can help explain the particular economy of cultural production in which we find ourselves. It would be cheap and easy to compare this economy with other modes of discourse, so that's exactly what I'll do.

In both religious and secular terms, risk might have something to do with faith. I think there's an epistemological distinction between belief and knowledge – to believe implies a corollary doubt, even if it's unstated or denied. You don't believe in a deity or a political figure or an ideology the way you believe in piglets or pencils. To say that I believe in something is an implicit admission that I don't know it. Our knowledge can be wrong, obviously, but if that possibility makes any serious inroads into our consciousness then we enter the realm of faith. We don't ask our parents if Santa Claus is real because we know the answer. To ask them is to challenge them to lie to us. This is what art is for.

Similarly, when we describe any work of art in qualitative terms, we're rarely speaking from a place of absolute knowledge. We know that someone might disagree. That doesn't make us wrong. But it does allow for an element of doubt, and it's this doubt that gives aesthetic experience its curious energy. To doubt – from the Latin duo and habitare – is to inhabit two places at once, and that's a fine place for aesthetic inquiry to commence.

But faith is never without its dangers – to deny that doubt, to claim absolute certainty, is to risk a fundamentalism that closes off possibility. Equally, doubt itself can prove crippling, preventing movement as your feet become mired in opposing viewpoints. Maybe these aren't useful terms here at all.

What about science? Can art be theory? Not absolute knowledge, but experiment based on provisional truths? I like the hypothetical method. If all available evidence points to a particular conclusion, we can treat it as likely. Given enough support, a hypothesis can become a theory. But it's still a theory, not an inviolable fact, and contrary proofs will always make these truths susceptible to revision (Newton's theory of gravity is kind of wrong, for example, but that's a headache we shan't get into here).

Perhaps art itself is hypothesis, then, and all art works test-cases. This would explain why the questions that have been asked of art – what is beauty? what is function? what is meaning? - have changed over time. Art, in this sense, is the frame, not its content.

While there's an abstract purity to this notion, it doesn't really help us down here in the muck. It doesn't get at an art work's materiality, its situatedness, but most of all it doesn't tell us what's at stake when we think of risk, and who bears those stakes.

Let's turn to the dirty world of commerce. One of the most provocative and unexpectedly moving books I've read this year was, of all things, a history of the Cadbury family. It goes by the totally sexy title Chocolate Wars - From Cadbury to Kraft: 200 Years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalries. Mmmm. Don't let the name put you off. When I picked it up I had no idea that 300 pages later I'd be holding back a tear or two while muttering “Damn you, Kraft, damn you to hell...” through teeth firmly gritted. The book itself is a hook on which its author hangs an elaborate and compelling cultural history of the past three centuries, taking in business, theology, slavery, internationalism, social welfare, war, consumption and debt (debt, my god, debt – it's virtually guaranteed to shift your opinion on debt).

The terrifying conclusion of this number is that we've created a world in which the sharemarket rules, but we've only done this by divorcing stakeholders from the corporations they support. How many shareholders have a personal involvement with the groups they financially sponsor? Even our superannuation (sorry, freelancers, don't mean to exclude you/us) are managed by hedge fund managers – we may request 'ethical' investment but most people aren't paying too close attention to what this means. That's how we got where we are. The Cadbury family founded their business on the Quaker principle that debt was a terrible moral failing, since an inability to repay a debt might well mean your creditor can't put food on their own table. 200 years later Kraft bought the company in a hostile takeover. At the time Kraft had debts of almost thirty billion Australian dollars. This is not a company you want taking you over.

What's all this got to do with art? I'd argue that little of the discourse surrounding art addresses its stakeholders. Not its audience, but those for whom the results of risk, speculation, investment, are real and tangible. It's one thing to ask “to whom does this speak,” and another to ask “to whom does this matter?” In most cases, most obviously, the makers of a work and those who enable its production hold the majority of the figurative shares. When it comes to larger performing arts companies, there's subscriber bases to factor in too – keeping these stakeholders satisfied is as essential as it is to any stockbroker. On an even broader scale, everyone holds a stake in artistic speculation since it's an economy whose capital gains aren't monetary but cultural.

But as with our financial markets, I wonder if the gap between culture and its stakeholders isn't becoming ever-wider. We can become involved in small projects, cottage industries, but our engagement with the structures that shape our sense of the artistic landscape is limited to buying a ticket (or not), liking a Facebook page, entering a competition or sitting in for a panel session. The real risks are those taken by artistic directors, season programmers, curators, funding bodies. Some of these make bold decisions, while some play safe. Despite the rhetoric, is the disproportionate funding going to opera and classical music really risk-taking with the potential for great gain, or just pouring financial capital into areas that already bear the veneer of cultural capital? Then again, why should we expect these decision-makers to take risks when so many of us don't take a gamble on work ourselves? What's in it for us, anyway?

Friday, October 21, 2011

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL THREE, OR(NITHOLOGY)

AVIARY


Last night I had the pleasure of sitting a few seats along from one of the strangest audience members I've ever encountered. She couldn't shut up for five minutes. Throughout the entirety of this world premiere she kept involuntarily babbling appreciation: “I love it.” “Thank you for that.” “That was lovely.” Her comments weren't directed at anyone (and her much older, serious-looking companion was livid). They weren't an attempt at grabbing attention, and were delivered in a calm, quiet monotone suggestive of Valium or narcolepsy or a dissociative state. She looked gently apologetic when reprimanded, then proceeded to film some of the show with her phone.

I've always had a personal fascination with people who break the social contract we make when entering a theatre. I can understand why these incidents usually annoy most everyone nearby, but in the case of Balletlab, at least, it's hard to complain: why shouldn't one of the most eccentric, perverse, off-kilter companies around attract the occasional peculiar fan?

Phillips Adams' work has always been defined by the twin polarities of obsession and chaos. They're like the homes of hoarders – seemingly stuffed to bursting point with meaningless debris, but also hinting at an insanely particular logic of order that can only be understood by its inhabitant. Each of Adams' shows reveal another object of fanatical pursuit: taxidermy, origami, woodchopping, bullfighting, Morris dancing, cryptozoology, cults. Balletlab makes choreography of the fetish, and here it's birdwatching, beards and the dandy that are put on the pedestal.

Aviary is composed of three parts: the first is the most straightforward and, to me, the least interesting. The dancers are dressed in elaborate, delicate black and white costumes reminiscent of plumage, and perform in a pretty literal bird-like manner, including squawks and trills and chirps. The score to Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux is scattered around the floor, and the performers respond to it both physically and orally, as if “playing” the music with their bodies.

The second sequence is a dramatic shift: Adams himself strides out in militaristic dress with a flamboyant white feathered cape. Now the bird cage is an 80s nightclub, complete with Simple Minds soundtrack and throbbing dancefloor lighting. A squad of dancers join Adams, who takes on the charismatic air of religious leader, army commander and fashion guru. It's ecstatic and ironic, linking the liberation of trangression through style with the fascist tendencies that often accompany such movements. One recurring image here is the fetishisation of facial hair – at points the entire playing space is covered in tiled images of beards and moustaches – as a reaction against the waxed and tanned bodies that once dominated gay culture's ideal of sexy, but whether this hairy fetish is can be its own kind of confining dictate is left open here.

The final third of the work is the most provocative. The dancers are once again birds, engaging in courtship rituals, preening, constructing their nests from a gigantic mound of branches heaped to one side of the stage. They're garbed in outrageously feathered headdresses and grass-skirts, and its here that things get difficult. The explicit object of reference is the bower-bird, but there's also a sense that the dancers are playing the exoticism of the tribe, making us both birdwatcher and amateur anthropologist at the same time. Adams hammers mindlessly at a piano to one side while the performers respond to the noise – if he is playing the anthropologist here, it's one whose dumb observances themselves create their subject, and it's an appropriately damning view of the cultural colonisation of 'primitive' tribes by those who have recorded them. Adams is wearing a hat styled with two horns, as well. Eventually he joins the group as well, at first entranced by his own reflection in the mirrored stage curtain (some birds have been known to attempt to court their own mirrored image) but it's also apparent that the observer here has fallen in love with the vision of himself in the environment he has been studying. Soon enough he's rolling around on the floor with his subjects, sanctifying their unions, once again placing himself in a position of monstrous leadership. But it this critique part of the work, or my own projection? I can't be sure. There's always the danger that Adams is simply reproducing these exotic fetishes, and that danger is what lends this final section such power.

It's maddening, as most of Adams' work is. He regularly goes through an intensive process of creation, exploring his subjects from all angles and building up a wealth of tightly defined material. Then he guts it, throws the heart out the window, leaving a glittering shell whose insides the audience must infer themselves. I've seen him in the rehearsal process and spoken to him during the development of new works, and what ends up on stage is often precisely the opposite of what I'd expected. It's massively brave dance-making, almost as demanding of its audience as it is of its performers. And certainly worthy of comment, even if it is from a strange duck a few seats down from me.

Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall until Sunday.

ASSEMBLY


There's something bird-like about Gideon Obarzanek's final work for Chunky Move, too. In one striking sequence, a flock of performers (around 64 I think, composed of both dancers and Victorian Opera singers) swarm around the stage in a shifting mass, the group moving as one, guided by decisions made spontaneously but not communicated in an obvious way. A random member switches direction, those nearby follow, and the change ripples outward. Sometimes two or three will shift at the same time, and the mass experiences an equally conflicted pattern change. It reminded me most of the amazing mating rituals of flamingos.



Assembly isn't about birds but patterns themselves, and the way the crowd is more than just a bunch of individuals. Crowd behaviour plays out throughout the work – the performers become spectators at a sporting match, or warring gangs, or aimlessly wandering commuters. They're dressed casually, which makes it all the more astonishing when they abruptly congregate into groups coded by colour. When the space is occupied by only one or a few people, it seems the lesser for it. While the dances performed by individuals are accomplished here – Harriet Ritchie, especially, is the show's star – the choreography is really most impressive when it's dispersed across bodies, not confined to them. My only real complaint about the work was the unexpected appearance of Paul Capsis near it's end, popping up to belt out a tune for some reason. We've gotten to know this motley bunch so well by this stage; why introduce a new member who brings his own aura of uniqueness that seems at odds with the shifting dynamics explored thus far?

If Aviary draws on ornithology and anthropology, Assembly is closer in intent to sociology. There's nothing academic to it, though. Obarzanek doesn't seem to have any particular point to make – he's not examining the dangers of the crowd's de-individuating force, or the way a mass can accomplish things beyond the individual. But there's a subtle, persuasive effect to the work that comes simply from watching an experience shared by such a large mob. In a way there's a note of sadness or alienation to it, as well: while the group onstage at times fleetingly join to form a united, intricately assembled whole, in the audience we're left as isolated voyeurs occupying a space and time but not aware of ourselves as any kind of community. How could we be? You need wings for a bird's eye view.

Season ended.

WHITELEY'S INCREDIBLE BLUE


More birds! This time it's herons, which are introduced as a pretty laboured pun on Brett Whiteley's heroin addiction. It's not the only pun on offer here, and it's not the only one that doesn't add much to proceedings. Barry Dickins' script is less a biography than an improvised jazz riff inspired by the iconic painter, appropriately accompanied here by a jazz trio noodling away throughout. Neil Pigot plays the man himself, but despite his valiant efforts the whole feels more haunted by its subject's absence than anything else.

If you didn't know much about Whiteley, you'd likely come away from this thinking of him as a thoroughly unlikeable egotist whose fame is frankly baffling. His art doesn't actually feature much, and while I'm aware of his reputation as an utterly charming cad, that charm is never on display here. I don't know if this is deliberate – it's not as if Whiteley can object – but this painter comes across less as a rakish genius than a misanthropic dickhead. Like many of history's most revered artists, I guess.

In between the herons and the jazz there are what you could call story elements, but they're presented in a way that could charitably be described as free-flowing and loose or uncharitably as obtuse and undisciplined. Some of the wackier sequences feel like spackle to paste over the cracks in the very structure of the work; it certainly doesn't approach the surreal, coming across more as beat poet word association. Dickins' writing is impressionistic, so it's unfortunate that this wasn't a work that much of an impression one way or another.

Fortyfivedownstairs until Sunday.

Monday, October 17, 2011

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL TWO, OR, THREE PLUS BRAMBLES

FOLEY


Michelangelo is supposed to have said that every block of stone contains a statue and it's the sculptor's job to find it; Gary Foley is like a sculptor whose medium is history, chipping away at facts to reveal the truth behind them. His one-man show is a lecture on the history of Aboriginal independence in Australia (a narrative in which he himself figures prominently) but it's as far from a dry classroom lesson as you could imagine. He paces the stage with a nervous energy, throwing out observations and recollections with a raconteur's wit and a keen ear for irony – indeed, it's a bitter joke that that he's even here to deliver these words, since at 61 he's well exceeded the life expectancy of the average Indigenous Australian male.

It's a meandering hour and forty five, though Foley's digressions mean that the show's length varies from show to show. Some of his most interesting ruminations occur when he goes off-script, though he's quick to reprimand himself and get back to business. At times this means that some of the prepared material is a bit rushed, but at the matinee I visited there wasn't a single unnecessary moment. Indeed, condensing more than a century of history into such a short span is a feat in itself: Foley manages to include Marcus Garvey and Jack Johnson, Malcolm X and Charlie Perkins, the creation of the Aboriginal flag (designed over two slabs of beer!), the Freedom Ride of the 1960s, the great migration of Indigenous Australians into our urban centres, the sporting controversies, segregated cinemas, the outrageous compromise that is Native Title, the broken promises of governments both Labor and Liberal, the ABC-commissioned Aboriginal comedy show Basically Black (one episode was produced in 1973 and from the excerpts we see here, it was a ridiculously groundbreaking moment in Australian television that was consigned to the vaults). The show's peak is an extended detailing of the Tent Embassy in Canberra, and some of the footage Foley uses to illustrate his words is revelatory. It's also testament to his charm that his audience can be laughing at film of a young Foley himself being beaten unconscious by police on the lawn of Parliament – it's a genuinely hilarious presentation of something that in reality is deeply unnerving and should be hard to watch. That's Foley: an enlightening and sometimes disturbing polemic, proudly political, presented in the most generous and accessible terms.

I caught a show where at least half of the audience were school kids, and Foley often addressed them directly, suggesting they get political and keep the fight going. When he asked if they were on-side he was met with a rousing cheer. His is a history that should be kept alive. That so much of the material he proffers isn't an acknowledged foundation for every Australian's sense of identity – well, that's the biggest joke of all.

DOUBLETHINK


There's more to this new dance work than meets the eye. Choreographer Byron Perry has previously shown promise with the affable I Like This, co-created with Antony Hamilton, and this first outing on his own extends those expectations further. It's performed by Kirstie McCracken and Lee Searle, two of the most physically striking dancers around right now, but in an odd way the actual dance is secondary. Perry's background is recognisable in the choreography itself – there are obvious gestures to Chunky Move as well as other companies and dancemakers in Melbourne – but the larger frame in which the dance is situated is what's most intriguing here. If anything it's reminiscent of Helen Herbertson's investigation of darkness, absence and duration and shock, but Perry evinces an originality that deserves consideration on its own.

In a way I found myself a bit bored by the work, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. Some art manages to evoke the kind of boredom theorised by Heidegger in the 1920s – a kind of forced disconnect that can free the mind from convention and leave us floundering desperately for something, anything, to grasp onto for support. It demands the mind become active, hyper-alert to its own role in the production of sensation, rather than a passive receptor of stimuli. That's what occurred to me, here: subtle light shifts and an evolving score gradually loose the spectator's sense of stable space and at times the two dancers are visible only at the edge of vision, as shapes that can't be perceived directly. A dance work where you can only see the dancers by looking away? Sure. It's a small but minutely detailed piece where the performance itself is half distraction: while you're busy paying attention to the movement, something else sneaks through the back door of your brain and starts rifling through your mental belongings. I wasn't in love when I was watching it, but I emerged into the night with that peculiar kind of clarity that usually accompanies insomnia, and every object I saw seemed to possess some kind of inner life I couldn't quite access. I don't know if that's what Perry intended, but it's enough for me.

HALF-REAL


Video games have come a long way since the days of Pong and Pacman, now offering sophisticated and immersive experiences that occasionally aspire to the status of art. It's a pity that this new work's convergence of new media and theatre could have been conceived in the days of point-and-click adventure games. A CSI-style murder mystery is played out and at key points audience members are given the opportunity to decide which direction the investigation will take; sadly, the novel interactivity isn't far removed from your average impro comedy night, and while it's all pleasantly diverting it doesn't leave anyone with very much to ponder once the game is over.

That's the short version. I'm going to go on a long excursion into the relationship between games and art here which might isn't directly related to Half-Real, so feel free so skip to the end for any conclusions I might reach (not promising anything).

I'm of a generation which grew up with video games, to the point that I only realised it today. I was swapping games on cassette tapes and floppy disks with kids at school long before my family had a VCR, more than a decade before I'd seen a ballet or an opera, possibly even before I'd enjoyed a book that didn't contain pictures or at least a map at the front. My friends and I knew how to hack into games and code our own (though I have no idea how to do any of this now). If you'd ask me then whether games could be art, I probably couldn't have answered you, since I wouldn't have had a clue what you meant by 'art'. Games were first.

I drifted away from computer games for a long time, but I suppose they always popped up as an entertainment option every once in a while. There probably hasn't been a year in which I wasn't at least aware of some game or other, trying out a new title when visiting a mate's house or reading up on the latest controversial release. If you'd asked me five years ago whether games could be art, I would have said: sure. If art can alter your experience of the world, or offer a new way of engaging with it, or tap into the Benjaminian optical unconscious, then why not? Games can do all of these things.

Earlier this year I came upon the fuss caused by film critic Roger Ebert's longstanding claim that games cannot be art. His argument is a bit fluffy and has shifted over the past half-decade and doesn't to me make a compelling argument. It's worth noting that he hasn't played any of the games he discusses. It's not worth reading his essays on the topic unless you're especially interested. They didn't convince me, at least.

But then I read an article by someone who does work in the gaming industry, has played those games people put forward as art, and who unexpectedly found himself coming to defend Ebert's claim. His piece is here, and is essential reading. The various arguments it explores are too many for me to summarise – it covers Kant, Schopenhauer, Bob Dylan, intersubjectivity, free speech, the sublime, kitsch...

“If you consciously set out trying to make an "art game," it's possible that you will instead create an arty game, a game with the trappings of sublime art. Solemn themes. Classical music. Literary quotations. Participation by artistic celebrities from other media. These things don't necessarily make a game artistic.”

The reason, argues writer Brian Moriarty, is that “games are purposeful. They are defined as the exercise of choice and will towards a self-maximizing goal. But sublime art is like a toy. It elicits play in the soul. The pleasure we get from it lies precisely in the fact that it has no rules, no goal, no purpose.”

Moriarty is passionate in his defence of games, but to conflate (some) with art is to miss the very thing that makes them games. To paraphrase him: it took a long time for photography and cinema to be understood as art. New technologies always face this. But to expect video games to follow the same path is a categorical error, since “games” aren't new at all! We don't consider Chess or Go as great art, though they're stunning achievements. We don't consider baseball or kiss chasey to be art, either. Games are structurally different to whatever art is – you can have elements of play in a work of art, and 'arty' elements to a game, but this doesn't mean they're the same thing. Games are about the exercise of will, whereas sublime art (according to Moriarty's understanding of Schopenhauer) allows us to transcend Will. Again, art can involve play – the audience can take on the role of artist – but that should be valued as play, as game. It's a good thing. But is it art?

Until I came across this article, I hadn't really been following what was going on in the game world for a few years. I decided to see how things were faring. Put the thesis to the test. Some results:

LIMBO:


I'd had this indie game recommended as a “a fantastically atmospheric, dark and confusing masterpiece” so it's a good place to start. It's certainly one of the most visually arresting games out there – the old platform-game (think Super Mario) re-imagined as a Gothic shadow play. There's no introduction or scene-setting to explain the scenario, but as the piece unfolds there are hints as to what's really going on. A little boy wakes in a forest and goes wandering; he crosses a river in a boat, sees other shadowy children running ahead who set traps for him; is chased by a fairly terrifying giant spider; makes his way into an industrial ghost-town; ends up... well, I won't spoil it. The game takes very conventional elements and infuses them with a melancholy you wouldn't expect from this kind of thing, and the ambiguity of the backstory is enough to have generated plenty of theories online. It's lovingly crafted, and demands reflection on its more profound meanings once you're done. Does this make it art?

BIOSHOCK:



This one's pretty old by video game standards, but is touted by many as one of the shining examples of innovation in the form. It's a shoot-em-up that doubles as a satirical condemnation of the political theory of Ayn Rand: the player finds himself stranded in an undersea metropolis created by a supercapitalist megalomaniac whose philosophy of extreme individualism is an obvious take on Rand's objectivism. The outcome is affected by moral choices made during gameplay, and these choices themselves end up part of a larger discourse of free will versus determinism, as the conventions of the form itself put into question how much choice the player has had in terms of real freedom. The setting is a sort of steampunky alternate history version of the postwar period, but it's clear how the political philosophy explored has formed one of the foundations for the world we find ourselves in today. Does this make it art?

DEAD ISLAND:
The trailer for this one alone had people in tears. It's worth watching if you don't know how far games have come in the past decade, but be warned – it's a zombie game, so it IS pretty gory. What's more surprising is how it condenses a tragic narrative, recognisable characters and a tangible sense of space into a short video clip for a computer game.
The game itself is visually ravishing and viscerally sensational – it's legitimately scary and at times provokes a bodily reaction of panic (I didn't really want to play it after a while for this reason). It's not that thought-provoking, but it definite has a real effect on the player. Even more intriguing is the fact that of the four characters the player may choose from, two are black, one is Chinese and one is an American of ambiguous ethnicity. A best-selling zombie game in which the lead character is (or can be) an Indigenous Australian woman! Compare this to other media. Does this make it art?

MASS EFFECT 2:



Battlestar Galactica is one of the most interesting TV series of the new millennium; it reinvents a kitschy 70s sci-fi as a sort of West Wing in space, presenting a complex post-9/11 allegory of competing theologies, racial paranoia and technological determinism. The Mass Effect series seems like an unofficial game adaptation of Battlestar, so it makes sense that President Bartlett/Martin Sheen himself voices one of the main characters, along with two of the leads from Battlestar.

The game is densely plotted and features countless characters with long backstories and intricate relationships; again, moral choices feature prominently, and as with other 'sandbox' games the player is given a great deal of freedom to explore and interact with the game world in their own way. While the narrative is solid, the way it plays out is determined by the player – a distinction between story and plot which is one of the key differences between gaming and other forms of art, I think. But despite the player's role in the narration itself, the story is certainly as present as any other form of literature, and this isn't just free play with no goal other than overcoming obstacles. Does this make it art?

PORTAL 2:



This is the game that really had me wondering if a video game could be a new kind of art in itself. Even the end credits had me transfixed! It's quite impossible to convey in words almost anything about the thing, though I can state the facts. There are more than 13,000 lines of dialogue – much of which is laugh-out-loud stuff – co-written and voiced by The Office's Stephen Merchant along with a bunch of other outstanding actors. The visual design is astonishing, and deeply, thickly immersive. The score (which includes an original song by The National) is truly dynamic, gaining in complexity in response to the player's actions. And the story, oh, the story. It's brilliant, but it's in the way the narrative is produced by the player that the game becomes something truly new. Most games with any plot to speak of feature cinematic cut-scenes – bits of story where the game as game stops and the player watches a fairly conventional sequence that might as well have been cut from a movie. Interactivity ends, actors speak lines, and we cut back to the play. Portal 2's genius is in the way the entire game is a cinematic, but the player maintains control throughout. It's operatic in scope, but you get to be part of the performance.

Still. Does this make it art?

Who cares?

A game, like any form of media, can be political, hilarious, emotionally wrenching, physically affecting, thought-provoking, offensive, entrancing, enlightening, boring. It can take you to other places or make you aware of your own. Does it help us if we decide that one of these things makes it art, or does it just set up a boundary dispute that tells us nothing about anything anyway? I'd rather hear that something is political, hilarious, emotionally wrenching and so on than that it's 'art'.

Back to Half-Real: in attempting to find a point at which games and art (in this case, theatre) can converge, it seems to me that the work what makes either so special. As a game, it offers only a few choices with no obvious rewards, and even these choices are subsumed into the will of the crowd – imagine a game in which half of your attempts to do something produce no effect. And as theatre, the story is hobbled by the interactivity, lacking a complexity of narrative and character. The performances are fine, but their liveness is at odds with the flat, affectless nature of the presentation itself. We're introduced as part of that liveness but are never given any reason to invest in anything that goes on. It's mildly diverting, and definitely not dull or irritating, but there's not much to do, and even less to think about afterwards.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL ONE, OR, OR.

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.

Season ended.

SITE UNSEEN


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.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Melbourne Fringe 2011 Awards

And that was the festival that was. Below are the winners announced at yesterday's closing night shennanigans - copy and paste job on my behalf but I'm still recovering from the festivities, so give me a day before I start writing any more original content here (Melbourne Festival, you're next).

Professional Development Awards
Best Emerging Circus Performer, Supported by ACAPTA
WINNER:  Tilly Cobham-Hervey, Freefall
AWARD: ACAPTA membership for 1 year and participation in an ACAPTA presented master class.

Tour Ready Award, supported by Adelaide Fringe
WINNER: Uta Uber Kool Ya
AWARD:  The winner of the Adelaide Fringe Award will receive free registration and $2000 support for Adelaide Fringe 2012.

Best Emerging Producer, suppoted by Auspicious Arts Award
WINNER:  Erin Voth from The American Astronaut
AWARD:  One term in the Auspicious Arts Incubator, worth $1200

Outstanding Comedy Show Award, supported by Brisbane Powerhouse
WINNER:  Me Pregnant!
AWARD:  Entry into the Brisbane Comedy Festival 2012 and presentation support including $2000 towards flights, accommodation and remounting costs.

Innovation in Theatre Award, supported by Brisbane Powerhouse.
WINNER:  Bunny
AWARD:  Entry into the World Theatre Festival 2012 (Brisbane) and presentation support incuding $2000 toward flights, accommodation and remounting costs.

Original New Circus, supported by Circus Oz Award
WINNER:  No Such Thing as Normal
AWARD:  Two weeks training/mentorship at Circuz Oz with Artistic Director Mike Finch.

Outstanding Indigenous Artist Award, supported by the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts
WINNER:  Vicki Kousins from Re: appropriate
AWARD:  Participation in a short course at VCA

Melbourne Cabaret Festival Award for Excellence in Cabaret
WINNER:  The Unexpected Variety Show
AWARD:  Double gold pass to all shows in the Melbourne Cabaret Festival 2012 and an invitation to perform in the Melbourne Cabaret Festival

Best Experimental Performance Award, supported by PACT Centre for Emerging Artists
WINNER:  Sweet Child of Mine
AWARD:  Presentation as part of PACT’S Presents….series in Sydney in 2012.

Best Original Australian Work, in Memoriam of Caz Howard, supported by Theatreworks
WINNER:  The Waiting Place
AWARD:  Presentation at Theatreworks in 2012

Best Emerging writer, supported by Victorian Writers Centre Award, in association with the Melbourne Theatre Company
WINNER:  Dan Giovannoni, Amelia Evans and Paige Rattray for Cut Snake
AWARD:  $250 worth of professional development with the Victorian Writer’s Centre and tickets to Opening Night performances at MTC for 2012.

Innovation in Culturally Diverse Practice, supported by Kultour.
WINNER:  In Fact, This Crease in Your Trouser is Good My Friend
AWARD:  Development time with Kultour

CATEGORY AWARDS

Best Cabaret
WINNER: Tommy Bradson in Pirate Rhapsody, Mermaid Requiem

Best Circus 
WINNER:  Freefall

Best Comedy
WINNER:  Lawrence Mooney in An Indecisive Bag of Donuts

Best Dance
WINNER:  Proximate Edifice

Best Live Art
WINNER:  A Window in Mime

Best Music
WINNER:  Musical Thoughts for a Darkened Room
HIGHLY COMMENDED:  No Place Like Home

Best Performance
WINNER:  After All This

Best Venue
WINNER:  Revolt

Best Visual Arts
WINNER: Rendered Bones

People’s Choice Award
WINNER:  Mercedes Benz….Awkwardly

Friday, October 7, 2011

FRINGE FESTIVAL PART FOUR, OR, THE PERILS OF HAIRDRESSER LOYALTY

BUNNY


Two guys in a pub, or a bar, or a nightclub, old mates, or maybe strangers, can't tell, don't want to give too much away or I mean I don't want to give the wrong impression here, but you know, you know what I'm implying so I don't need to say it, or maybe you are thinking the wrong thing entirely but that's not what I said is it, I haven't even said anything, but you should see this show, you should check it out at least, see if it's for you, I loved it, you should try it at least, probably not for everyone, I reckon you'd love it though.

Possibly the most engaging, hilarious and edge-of-your-seat-can't-look-away piece at this year's Fringe. A lot of booze is consumed, a lot of things aren't said, a lot of emotion erupts when least expected. Can't say any more. Mustn't say any more.

At Tuxedo Cat until Oct 8.

SO BLUE, SO CALM


This new work from Mutation Theatre employs a tone and setting similar to Bunny but to vastly different effect. A couple of dudes are hanging around in a suburban backyard, talking crap, playing tunes, occasionally making a pointed observation on life. Some people have compared it (unfavourably) to Ranters' sublime Holiday, but I don't think that's quite right. There are any number of companies working within the loose mould of the post-dramatic, and every element of this production could have emerged without any knowledge of Ranters. Hell, Holiday didn't spring forth from a void itself.

Unfortunately, So Blue, So Calm still doesn't quite work even on its own terms. Where it does aim for poignancy, it falls a bit short. If it was intended to be a piece exploring the way young men's 'profound' ideas are really pretty shallow, it might have been closer to the mark, but there's a sense that the work itself is meant to be deep, if understated, and I couldn't find that much to engage with. It could also be the slippage between text and performance: the actors wear their faces and speak their lines as if they were someone else's, and there are a few more layers of polish that need to be stripped back before this will have that almost translucent shimmer that turns banality into something entirely engrossing. There's much promise to the experiment, but it's still at the trial stage, and I'm interested to see where the ambitions displayed here will eventually lead.

At Mutation Theatre, 294 Smith St until Oct 8.


LOVEFRIDGE 


You don't find experiences like this outside of festivals – I was killing some time in one of the Fringe bars when someone invited me behind a curtain for a six-minute performance. Sure, why not? It's a tiny as it is short – one performer with a guitar and a few props, and only two or three audience members at most. A couple of songs about the love between vegetables in a refrigerator, a casual chat once it's done, and back off into the night. Modest but pleasant.

The Warren, Fringe Hub until Oct 8.

DIFFERENT


At Hairy Little Sista until Oct 8.

ADHD is usually thought of as a problem limited to children, with public discussion centring on kids jacked up on energy drinks and videogames, doped out on Ritalin, or victims of the over-pathologising of childhood itself (“kids are meant to be distracted! It's just their lovely imaginations at work!”). But as Kelda Kellie makes clear here, the disorder of the constantly restless mind is for life – sufferers don't get over it, they just get used to faking. Kellie isn't that good at faking, though, and the flaws of this production are also integral to its success. It's messy, disjointed, meanders off track every couple of minutes and often fails to resolve itself. This is because Kellie can't help it, despite her efforts, and it's through the constant state of collapse that the show conveys a real sense of the terrible burden of the disorder.

The performer was only diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago, in her late 30s. She was listening to a doctor on RRR talking about it and when a checklist of symptoms was offered, she began ticking off the boxes. It was a revelation, as if someone was describing her entire life and experience of the world. Though she only came to the realisation recently, it's fascinating how obvious the signs were from the beginning and how we write them off as personality quirks. The show is presented as a kind of lecture or seminar in which Kellie takes us on a tour of her childhood (I think there may have been a lot more about her adult life which she had to discard on opening night since we were running overtime, again due to those incessant digressions). But even limiting the material to her youth, there's much insight to be gained here.

When Kellie reads out her report cards from prep to Year 12, the descriptions given to her by teachers provide glimpses of how we rationalise the disorder: Kellie is routinely told that she's not applying herself, that she doesn't try or, far too often, that's she's just not very clever. To grow up with your elders constantly instilling this idea that you're somewhat stupid is one of the heartbreaking revelations of the show, but it's not the only one. Kellie's difference meant she was singled out not just by her class, but by her entire school, and even the tech school next door, and she was mercilessly bullied. As one casual aside puts it, if she'd known about the concept of suicide as a nine-year-old, she probably would have gone there.

Again, the whole doesn't hang together very well, but the result is something that lingers in your mind and even disorders your own thinking a little. I'd had a long day when I saw this but combined with its successor, Bunny, I ended up with a huge amount to think about when I got home. Which in turn led to a bout of...

INSOMNIA CAT CAME TO STAY


I don't really suffer insomnia (though I have), and it was a shock to have a mostly sleepless night recently. It's nothing – not a speck – on Fleur Kilpatrick's experiences, though. As a chronic insomniac she's faced innumerable long nights that see her wide awake at five in the morning, hyperalert and gnawed at by the knowledge that tomorrow will be another day spent in a stupor. Somehow she's used those moments in the wee hours to write a journal reflecting on the experience, and instead of garbled, wake-drunk ramblings, the results are quietly fascinating. These thoughts are couched in a much broader framework that posits facts about the illness, poetic ruminations and personal anecdote, along with a bunch of songs that break up proceedings (I thought they were the weakest and least necessary part of the show).

There's an ingenious set – Kilpatrick is strapped into an arrangement of sheets that evoke both a bed and a pair of wings – and while this renders her pretty much immobile, some animations projected onto the space provide a great sense of movement. The effect is hypnotic but not soporific, and it does a great deal to evoke that sense of intensely focused but not entirely awake consciousness that comes with insomnia, a kind of clarity narrowed down to a sharp point.

The title is a surprisingly apt metaphor, too, with insomnia's comparison to a stray cat you didn't ask for, don't feed or pat but can't keep off your property one that rings true throughout. A small but finely considered piece, though thankfully not one to keep you up at night yourself.

At Loop until Oct 8.

LESS THAN <3 THREE, BECAUSE I HEART U – THE OVERDRAMATIC LIFE OF KYLE MCCONNELLY


The last show I saw by this company, The Play About Nothing, was a winner – an immersive night with a couple of deliquents as they travelled around Melbourne getting up to no good. Each audience member played a character in the tale, and there was a sense of energy and unpredictability that really got to the heart of the disaffected kids under scrutiny.

That promise really took a wrong turn here. Where TPAN was stylistically innovative, Less Than <3 is a straight-up comic play, and not a great one. Some hammy performances, an uninspired plot and high-school level jokes prevent it from really going anywhere interesting, and while its predecessor really brought to life a particular culture of youth, this one distances us from its emo and hipster subjects, who themselves are merely thin caricature.

Kyle is the last emo, shunned by his school peers, his only friend a Tamagotchi and his only outlet for expression a livejournal account and angst-ridden vlogs. There's potential for something here, if Kyle was treated with any seriousness, but for much of the piece he's inexplicably shunted aside to make room for a confusing plot surrounding a media project by his cool schoolmates and a homeless artist taken in by an unscrupulous gallery owner (the artist is haunted by a really annoying clown for no reason I could fathom).

There's some kind of statement about postmodernism going on, but damned if I could hear it through all the noise. I think it might have boiled down to “postmodernism is a bit wanky” and given that there's a mention of John Docker's Postmodernism and Popular Culture I have to assume that the company has at least encountered the subject somewhere, but nothing here resembles a coherent comment on, well, anything.

Luckily none of this undermines the interest generated by The Play About Nothing, which wasn't just a happy accident. There's talent in here somewhere that got lost during this piece's development. Hopefully it'll return to the fore next time.

Fringe Hub until Oct 8.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

FRINGE FESTIVAL PART THREE: LEPIDOPTERY FOR YOU AT HOME

The festival proceeds apace! With less than a week to go, I might as well rustle about in my bag of "things you missed out on" and see what I can dig up. Sorry that these shows have all closed, but perhaps they'll inspire you to try out something that is still happening. What a poor excuse for a post. Let us commence.

JASON CHONG – REEL LIFE


If I'd seen this show as a 14-year-old boy, I'm pretty sure I would have spent the next six months trying to recreate the cool technology Chong employs here – with the aid of a video projector and editing software he's put together a piece where he interacts with a bunch of onscreen versions of himself (shoulder-based angel and devil, clones, etc) in a shaggy dog narrative that really exists to allow for the rapid-fire visual gags. You know the sort: throwing something at the screen and having the projected character catch it, or waving an 'x-ray' machine over your body to reveal your skeleton. Some of the effects are impressive in a consciously lo-fi way, but the story never attempts to be more than a silly, fluffy affair. It'd be a great one for kids, especially if you want to convince them pestering you for a video camera for the next while.

AFTER ALL THIS


Aw, geez, you really missed out here. I'm not sure why this Elbow Room show had such a short season, given the scale of the production itself. It might have been because performers were committed to other shows. It might have been because it's just one stage in a bigger project intended for next year. Whatever the reason, it was pretty spesh.

The production is broken into three parts (with a sort of coda) and takes place throughout the various storeys of a large building. At first we're seated on a staircase watching an intimate conversation between two kids. It gradually becomes apparent that they're young members of a cult, and as you'd imagine, that's not a particularly good thing. From there we move upstairs into a situation far removed (in time, theme and theatrical style) that addresses philosophical questions surrounding religion and modern life while only obtusely bearing any connection to what's preceded it; next up is another new situation that takes us back into the heart of a cult. I'm trying not to spoil much, since the achievement here is in the delicacy with which the work's concerns unfold – suffice to say that by its end, I'd found real insight in the appeal of a crazy sect. It's not at all an apology for the often destructive and abusive reality behind such cults, but it does show that for those who fall into this mindset, there are profound motivations that go beyond 'I'm a wacko who just wants to belong somewhere'. And in its own way, their decision can even be seen as kind of admirable. Hard to explain, but if the show comes back to life somewhere down the track, find out for yourself.

IT'S GOOD TO SHUT UP SOMETIMES


I signed up for this show because, hey, how often do you get the chance to see one of the world's leading mimes in action? I don't know what it means to be a world-leading mime, but it's got to count for something. And it's an artform I don't know that much about (beyond the jokes) so the educational component was an attraction too.

Miklos was raised in Hungary and (I think) now resides in New Zealand. His teacher was a student of Marcel Marceau which makes him one of Marceau's grandstudents. He performs a famous routine by the world's most famous mime, too, and on Saturday afternoon it had one punter in particular losing his shit with laughter. Like, the kind of laughter most comics will never be able to provoke. The kind of laughter where you're wondering if an ambulance needs to be called. That said, the show would be better off in the 'performance' category of Fringe rather than 'comedy', because humour is only one mode of theatre it offers.

That's where the educational bit comes in: Miklos takes us through a variety of genres of mime, including dramatic mime and a 'poem without words' that's closer to interpretative dance. Miklos is far from silent throughout the piece, instead introducing each sequence with some contextual banter. One of the most interesting bits dramatises the plight of Romanians fleeing Hungary during Ceaușescu's reign. Admittedly, this was also a point at which I let out an involuntary laugh myself, since the desperate escape was inexplicably accompanied by the "Peter Gunn" theme.

There's a wide-eyed innocence to the performer reminiscent of Buster Keaton – I don't mean the characters, but the performer himself. It's such a sincere piece, without a trace of irony, that it's a real oddity in the Australian landscape and welcome for that reason. Some of the physical punchlines are groaners, and Miklos seems genuinely eager to please. How can you not laugh when a mime signals the end of a sequence by saying “now is the time you clap”?

I KNOW THERE'S A LOT OF NOISE OUTSIDE BUT YOU HAVE TO CLOSE YOUR EYES


It's amazing how two people can witness the same piece of art and come away with completely different interpretations. Not as to its meaning, but as to what went on. I recently heard a friend describe this short work and was astounded that we had constructed completely dissimilar narratives from the events we were shown.

Well, not completely: the opening scene here is quite straightforward. Two women in their 20s meet up at a bar after a long period of separation, and while they were close as children (or teens) it quickly becomes obvious how different they've become – one a Fitzroy hipster, distanced and drenched in ennui, the other a Collette Dinnigan-loving suburbanite seemingly lacking the irony gene. From there on things get murkier. A succession of solo scenes take us well out of the domain of realism – we might be witnessing youthful memories or sublimated desires or something else. This fugue state is what gives the work real power; it's as if we're made privy to the subconscious drives that are the stuff of the psyche but which are only allowed the narrowest of outlets. It's dark, often brutal stuff, and when we occasionally return to the opening relationship it's fascinating to see how inexpressible interior urges are distorted and compressed into 'acceptable' social exchanges, which suddenly take on new gravity. My interpretation, anyway.

The writing is excellent, for the most part. The performances are fine, too, but didn't serve the nature of the piece as well as they could have – the depths plumbed here require a corresponding rawness, a tearing off of the mask, while the actors seemed rather to alternate one mask with another. It could be that the more irreal passages went for the kind of 'poetic' style of performance we glibly describe as dreamlike, without recognising that both poetry and dreams are more potent when they expose the nerve endings rather than offer a salve. It's a huge advance on the last outing by this company (I'm Trying to Kiss You), however, and definitely a sign of some minds making serious work.

THE DOLLHOUSE


For the last few years Daniel Schlusser's work has been essential viewing for anyone serious about theatre. It's representative of a number of trends in contemporary European performance, but also possessed of a distinct method that stands alone. He doesn't exactly deconstruct texts – that abused word is usually invoked when someone simply reorganises or rewrites a play. Rather, his process seems more akin to smelting. He breaks down a text into its component molecules and then cooks up a chemical stew in which those elements form strange new relationships. Most of all, his stuff is hot.

In the case of The Dollhouse, he's taken Ibsen's classic and refashioned it as an urgent drama very much of the moment. Nora is a product of the post-feminist era, and the complexity of her character creates a wonderful ambivalence – she's the seamy underside of the Sex and the City stereotype, mired in a swamp of self-obsession, desperate for validation, substituting shopping and the image of motherhood (despite the lack of children on stage) for real connection with others. Husband Torvald is a distant, passive-aggressive banker who spends his off-time on the Playstation, preferring his trophy wife seen but not really heard. The rotten core of this coupling – and the wider social dynamic it's indicative of – is the work's real subject, but there's so much more going around this.

As with most of Schlusser's work, it shears away at the line between theatre and 'reality', so that actors are always actors, not just characters, and the performance itself always teeters on the edge of breakdown. The result is a tightly-wound tension: at any moment the escalating drama might be dissolved of its energy by a reminder that it's all artifice, but Schlusser and his performers use that threat to heighten interest rather than dispersing it.

It's not Ibsen's play, though it retains much of the original's pathos, and purists would likely find fault in that. But as a work that speaks to contemporary concerns, it's full of significance. I'm looking forward to 2012, where he has a slate of hugely promising new projects.

Monday, October 3, 2011

FRINGE FESTIVAL PART TWO, OR, BRING ME MY ORGONE ACCUMULATOR

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.

POND


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.


CUMULUS NIMBUS


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


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.