Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Review: Monster of the Deep 3D


By Claudia O’Doherty.

I know that these days everyone’s waking up to the end-of-the-world scenarios our millennia-long People Party has resulted in, but we often forget that there were doomsayers well before Al Gore borrowed the neighbour’s video camera and made a documentary about it. Why, even the 1973 film Soylent Green has people babbling about something called “the greenhouse effect” and that, as we all know, was the definitive film about surviving the massive mess we’ve made (just eat poor people: problem solved).

The 1970s were full of these awesome ideas for fixing the future. Logan’s Run suggested that we kill off anyone over 30 (that seemed a really neat idea to me until a few years ago). Planet of the Apes suggested that we just chill until the monkeys take over for us. The Omega Man suggested that we use Charlton Heston’s super-blood to develop a cure for unstoppable plagues. Considering that Heston starred in three of these four movies, I’m guessing that he was really trying to be a part of the solution in whatever limited capacity he had.

It may come as a shock to some readers but not all techno-utopias work out as planned. Pig Island’s Claudia O’Doherty here serves up a timely reminder of the dangers that swim around our pipe-dream solutions to the world’s problems like a shoal of glittering and fancy fish (fish of danger).
O’Doherty is the last survivor of an ill-fated international project to build a submarine colony known as Aquaplex. Constructed in 1978, the recent destruction of the colony smells more fishy than a week-old serve of tuna mornay but the lone remnant of that civilisation is determined to give a true and accurate account of the distant world that was her home since birth.

With the assistance of countless props and visual aids O’Doherty guides us through the decades of undersea ridiculousness that made her what she is today. It’s often hilarious stuff and she’s either very erudite and astute or else very good at faking it. The show is packed like a sardine can with bits that will slowly come back to you in days to come, like the festival of Emotionas, a verbatim theatre retelling of the Colossal Squid tragedy and the touching story of O’Doherty’s parents’ meet cute. The real killer set-piece comes right at the end and unexpectedly adds a new significance to the 3D of the title. This is easily the funniest thing I’ve seen in the Fringe so far and despite the absence of Charlton Heston shouldn’t fail to leave you feeling slightly better about a future which will never be.

At the Lithuanian Club until Oct 10.

Review: Snuff Club


By Snuff Puppets.

The Snuff Puppets’ latest is a bit like catching your best friend urinating on your other best friend, and both of them seem to be enjoying it. It’s really very “ewwww” but these are your friends, right, and they’re not actually intending to cause any harm. It’s just an unfortunate fact that your friends turn out to be a bit scarier than you’d realised.

The piece is a cabaret/variety night of truly abject horror. The Snuffies don’t do puppets in the way you might expect (hands up the posterior of a felt fizgig or wacky figure suspended on strings). They tend more towards onstage performers dressed in absurdly manipulable outfits. In this case, we get overweight Germanic lovers tearing each others’ limbs off and devouring them; a real-time sex-change operation with rusty scissors and a blood-spurting penile stump; a compere who ends up chowing down on most of the cast and sucking them into his engorged gullet. Just another day at the office for me, really.

Amidst the carnage, the show definitely finds a moment to throw a bone to fans of man-pigs who spout existentialist philosophy in French. I think the porcine orator was quoting Sartre when he proclaimed that “l'existence précède l'essence” but my French is getting a bit rusty so feel free to raise a trotter if you can correct me.

And, as mentioned in my last review, there’s some inverted body stuff going on wherein a fella turns himself inside out. It took a bit long when I saw it, though, and when the final reveal took place it was rewarding but had lost the ghastly momentum that was needed to really make for a killer ending.
I saw Snuff Club on opening night and there were technical difficulties, but even with these in mind I couldn’t help but think that the whole thing needs serious tightening up. There are too many moments of lengthy anticipation unmet; the band seem out of synch with the all-important MC character; the Sturm und Drang effect of the whole Cronenbergian imagery frequently falters during lengthy sections of waiting. This is a brilliant forty minutes hanging around for an hour and a half; I’m hoping that it sharpens up later in the season.

Lithuanian Club until Oct 10.

New MTC Lawler show announced

Well, I don't totally get it. There's only one show programmed in the Lawler Studio in 2010 but another one's just been announced for October/November this year. My money's on a few more being announced next year as they get confirmed.

Shamelessly ripped from the media release:

"Twenty five years ago Beverley Dunn first took to the stage to celebrate the life of Mary Gilmore. For 12 performances only, Beverley Dunn will once again re-incarnate this iconic Australian woman in The Dame on the Ten Dollar Note from Wednesday 28 October until Saturday 7 November, 2009 at the MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio.

Directed by Bruce Myles, The Dame on the Ten Dollar Note is a one-hour celebration of author, journalist, poet and indomitable activist – Dame Mary Gilmore. The Dame on the Ten Dollar Note is a revelation of the life of one of Australia’s most astonishing women. Drawn from Mary Gilmore’s own words – her prose, her poetry, her newspaper articles, her diaries and letters, Beverley Dunn takes us into a very different Australia, one struggling to find its feet in the world and forge its own personality."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Holy Sissies and Sluts Batman!


By Sissies and Sluts Theatre Company.

After this production a friend said it was like being vomited on for two hours. I’ve thought about this description and think it’s close, but for me it was more like standing next to someone who’s dry retching for two hours. Nothing of actual substance comes up – however distasteful – but the scuzzy feeling of revulsion is unrelenting. You don't know whether to sidle towards the nearest exit or offer some kind of assistance.

As I sat stunned and despairing at the travesty unfolding before me I had a chance to reflect on the life choices that brought me to where I was. I thought about theatremaking and the history of satire and the changing role of its audience. I thought about the idea of the post-dramatic, about irony’s endless deferral of meaning and about the position of the critic in all of this. I also thought that I must have sustained some kind of severe head trauma shortly before agreeing to front up to this show.

The piece asks a question which has plagued philosophers throughout the ages: “What would happen if all of the characters in the Batman universe wanted to have sex with each other and everything around them all the time again and again and were being played by people with no discernible acting ability?” I think that was one of the Sphinx’s questions to Oedipus but my fact-checkers are off for the weekend so I’ll have to get back to you.

At no point does the production make a distinction between ‘conscious artistic choice’ and ‘basic neural activity required to function’. The whole catastrophe begins with Catwoman attempting to seduce Batman for some reason, and by seduce I mean she gives an inordinately elongated description of her vagina in all kinds of colourful terms and explains what she wants him to do with/to it. Batman doesn’t seem all that interested so Catwoman teams up with a bunch of other supervillains who either want to kill “the f—king bat-f—k-face f—k” or else have all kinds of intercourse with him or both (any distinction between sex and death was completely non-existent here). Characters continue to be introduced at random and sometimes disappear for an hour or more. The ‘plot’ manages the seemingly impossible task of being both utterly chaotic and mostly predictable.

But the anarchy lacks any energy at all and despite the constant references to paedophilia, the racist jokes, the putting down of disabled kids and the scatological framing of everything, it’s not even offensive. It seems to exist in a world where every taboo has been broken long ago and the only thing left to do is to play out empty rituals of transgression, if only to pass the time.

And this, weirdly, is where there’s something really interesting about the show. It’s very long for something with no redeeming features, and there’s an interval. Which means that if you choose to return to your seat after that interval, you’re actively choosing to become complicit in your own abuse. You can complain about how bad the show is – and the show of course means to be truly awful – but by not walking out you’re affirming that there is something being gained from the experience.

What I was thinking about this morning was an imperfectly remembered scene from Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice (a horrible but memorable novel) in which the reimagined puppet comes across a carnival featuring a figure I think was called the Inverted Virgin. I could be wrong but the rough idea of the character is of the Virgin Mary turned inside out, with all of her internal organs on grotesque display. I can’t remember the function of the character but it stuck with me, and the idea of the inside-out body (which also figures large in Snuff Puppet’s Fringe show Snuff Club) is really intriguing. When the sacred and impenetrable Mary is flipped inside-out so that her innards (including unmentionable sex organs) are held out for anyone to view, does a new interior result? Does the once pristine exterior now become the invisible inside? It’s the same with pornography – by apparently showing everything, is a new absence produced?

Holy Sissies and Sluts Batman! does seem to inadvertently create such an absence. It takes the oft-remarked upon sexual subtexts of the campy Batman series and makes them the surface of the show, but what replaces that sub-stratum of significance? Can anything be read into the play that isn’t evident from the get-go? I guess by turning Batman inside out everything we look for in a story becomes internalised; including, really, any story itself. The stupid banality and excess put meaning and value and intent into an unapproachable place of secrecy; they come to occupy the position of the sacred which must not be shown. In fact, the need to avoid doing anything intelligent here actually confirms that idea of narrative or morality or complexity or character as a new kind of taboo.

None of this is anything more than a desperate attempt by me to make sense of an incredibly senseless show, but I have to say that I and the few people I spoke to afterwards found the entire encounter a weirdly refreshing one; kind of like colonic irrigation for your aesthetic sensibilities. Like bad TV or airline food or something, it’s completely unengaging but sort of comforting for that reason. It’s humiliating for all involved, sure, but at least that includes its audience.

Ends tonight at Pony.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reviews: While I'm Away; Yuri Wells


By Telia Neville

Telia Neville knows that a one-woman night of performance poetry might scare off a few punters, so she’s teamed it with a slide session of holiday snaps. Does that make any sense? Isn’t it like trying to sell your 1983 Ford Laser by sexying it up with faded Magic Happens stickers? Or offering the kids an extra helping of tripe if they finish their homework? As it turns out, no.

Neville’s poetry is great – bittersweet without being self-indulgent or twee; clever without signalling its own technical sophistication; and, perhaps most importantly for audiences a bit scared of spoken word, punctuated with a very dry, droll sense of humour. She has the ‘character’ of her poet down pat, walking a line between world-weary melancholy and a hesitant desire to find something worth hoping for.

While I’m Away could seem overly, well, nice. There are no serrated edges to the piece, no painful turns or moments of shock. The sadness beneath the humour isn’t that of a life wasted or an irreversible wrong choice made; more the disappointment of being stuck on the toilet during the final boarding call for love (one of my favourite poems from the show, right there). All the subtle, understated whimsy does build up a kind of critical mass, however, and on the night I attended every poem drew spontaneous applause from people who probably hadn’t expected to find their mitts banging together.

The slide component is just as subtle but also very astute. The contents of the images don’t really do much in a performative sense, but their presence literally adds a comforting kind of colour that defuses the fear of being stuck watching an hour of poetry. Ironically, despite the visual interest offered by the faded photos, you very quickly find yourself watching Neville and sort of forgetting that they’re there.

Till Oct 2 at the Fringe Hub, Lithuanian Club, North Melb.


Presented by The Hayloft Project.

Another solo piece comes from Benedict Hardie and again this one moves from a deceptively simple place to one more complex and, in this case, troubling. As the audience enters Hardie is accompanied by mate Stu Bowden playing warm-up guy, the two exchanging jokes and stories while Bowden plucks his ukulele. Their banter is super-lite and full of whimsy and beaming smiles to the audience and the general feeling that we’re getting into Drama Class Love Your Audience territory. There’s a little more to this preamble than you realise until later.

When the performance proper begins, Hardie plays the titular Yuri Wells, an everyman who works as a nurse and seems to live the clichéd mild-mannered existence. I can’t stand everymen. I’ve never met an everyman and it’s a literary conceit that might have some chops if you’re Robert Musil but if you give me a choice between “a man without qualities” and “a man with many qualities which will be revealed over time and may allow you to rethink your own life and the world in which you find yourself”, I’ll always choose the latter unless there’s some kind of strict word count involved.

Thankfully, then, as Wells’ story progresses his innocent circumstances careen down some unexpectedly dark byways and the character thickens out to become a fascinating and challenging one (and all of those early smiles take on a terrible aspect) It’s a very sad piece, like a sharp short story that doesn’t overextend itself but leaves you with much to contemplate.

It could have been a measured but ultimately throwaway piece of storytelling – the individual elements of the story are somewhat familiar – but Hardie’s performance is superb here, with a sometimes frightening command of his character’s… peculiar… psychological quirks.

Plus there’s a crocodile xylophone-piano thing, which you don’t see enough of these days.

Till Oct 10 at the Fringe Hub, North Melbourne Town Hall.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reviews: The Courtesan; The Cat's Paw


It has begun. I squeezed in about 40 or 50 Fringe shows last year and I'll try to match that again, so I'll be slapping up some quick reviews here most days over the next few weeks. To start with, here's a Fringe show and a non-Fringe show (just to confuse you and perhaps earn your scorn for lack of consistency).

This week I saw two plays examining prostitution, which I think brings my tally of Plays I’ve Seen About Prostitution to a grand total of two. Both have merits, both have flaws.


By Brigid Dolan.

Brigid Dolan is definitely an early contender for the coveted Most Versatile Hair award at this year’s Fringe. I went along to her one-woman show after noticing that the dramaturgy had been provided by Peta Sargent, a fantastic live performer. Dolan actually has a resemblance to Sergant, although I don’t know if they’re related. Anyway, The Courtesan is pretty patchy but her hair really is superb.

The piece is based around Marie du Plessis, the 19th C. Parisian prostitute who was the basis for Nicole Kidman’s character in Moulin Rouge. Dolan clearly has a great affection for and fascination with du Plessis and doesn’t so much provide us with an objective biography as try to create a sense of the exotic world in which she moved and became such a spectacular public figure. She weaves in a few other threads, including a wonderfully unexpected moment of visceral horror following a mention of research between childhood sexual abuse and prostitution.

It’s billed in the Performance category of the Fringe this year but the show feels closer to dance and circus. Dolan’s physicality is very confident and she’s worked for years as a street performer which shows; I’d imagine she’s had a lot of dance training, too. She never stops tripping and spinning around the space (the show is performed in the round) and there’s some trapeze action in there too.

The show’s shortcomings may be a result of the performer being too enthralled by her subject; getting a writer or director on board would help bring together the disparate elements that make up the piece. It’s not a case of the performance lacking depth or breadth, more that it leaps and darts in different directions faster than its audience can comprehend.

Till Sunday at Bar Open.


By Christine Croyden. Presented by Hoy Polloy.

Paul is a guy who has just seen the end of a relationship whose awfulness is matched only by his jacket. He hires a detective to go peep on his ex-wife and at the end of their meeting the gumshoe recommends a prostitute he should go spend some quality time with. As you can tell, there are some shady dealings afoot (or apaw) and Paul soon finds himself embroiled in an ugly culture of pimping and violence. He also finds himself in a strange kind of relationship with Bridget, the prostitute suggested by the PI, and their ambivalent connection provides the dramatic core of the piece. A couple of other streetwalkers provide a second tier of realism that’s not nearly as complex but extends the range of issues raised (drug problems, sadistic customers, the differences between working on the street and working privately).

For no good reason there’s also an angel overlooking proceedings and occasionally talking over people in an inexplicably Irish accent. No fault with the performer and it’s not like the character’s inclusion will have you balling your fists in unholy rage, but there were a few moments when I wanted to shoosh her for interrupting things. It’s a script problem, pure and simple. I’m not that big on Greek chorus-style characters anyway and angels are a pretty one-note form of magical realism, but that could just be my godless heathen self speaking.

Some of the play works really well – the dynamic between Bridget and Paul puts the audience in a very morally grey area and there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. There are also no pat solutions or simple definitions of problems. The bits that don’t work – the entire angel conceit, and one of the plot resolutions – could be cut from the text entirely, meaning that there’s half of a very good play here conjoined to half of a pretty average one. It’s like conjoined twins in real life, where one is always evil, I suppose.

I’d say the good triumphs over the bad, though, unlike real life, and this is definitely another production Hoy Polloy can add to the long list of interesting and thought-provoking pieces the company has been creating in more recent years.

Till Oct 3 at Carlton Courthouse.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

MTC 2010

The 2010 MTC season was launched last night. Here’s the skinny:

Some predictable programming – a light realist comedy by David Williamson (the grammatically-interestingly titled Let the Sunshine); a nostalgic Circle of Friends-style drama by Hannie Rayson; a one-hander by Joanna Murray-Smith with an ok-sounding premise (“five anonymous women whose brushes with fame had a profound effect on their lives”); Simon Phillips directing another (just as nostalgic) technicolour Broadway hit called The Drowsy Chaperone.

More intriguing – a new work by Daniel Keene finally getting some mainstage action; an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother; David Mamet’s Boston Marriage, which Hoy Polloy produced a while back and of which I have fond memories, and a Marius Von Mayenburg number in the Lawler.

The jury (me) is out on the light but pleasant-sounding Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Shakespeare’s Richard III (surely unnecessary?) and the haunting mystery Madagascar, which I remember as a very entertaining animated comedy about zoo animals trying to return to their African homeland. Maybe they’ll do it with puppets or something. Madagascar will be Sam Strong’s MTC directorial debut which is a position well earned by the guy. I know nothing about The Grenade starring Garry McDonald.

Casting is no surprise, either: can’t see anyone I don’t recognise or anyone, you know, non-Anglo, which is a surprise compared to 2009’s fascinatingly broad casting selections. But then again, season launches rarely promote the lesser-known players so unless there are no shows with more than a tiny handful of performers there will probably be a few newcomers given some shrift throughout the year.

Verdict? Not as diverse a calendar as this year’s, but with a few potential gems on the boil. I’m a bit bewildered that only one Lawler show has been announced.

Kantor To Go

Yesterday Michael Kantor announced that he’d be stepping down (well, to one side, I guess) from his role as Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre. I think he’s done some bang-up work with the company in the last half-decade and some not-so-bang-up (bang-down?) work too, but I’ve also found that’s he’s consistently open to criticism of his stuff and in fact actively courts it. God knows I’ve been tough on some of his directorial output but Kantor has always encouraged that kind of thing. I might say the same about Simon Phillips – I think the changing shape of the MTC has been a direct response to broader criticisms in the theatre world over the past few years. That’s just speculation, though. I have no clue what goes on behind those secret doors deep within the MTC’s new nerve centre; doors I imagine as looming titanium blocks carved with occult designs and guarded by bald, goateed henchmen who go by a single name (Maciste, Kroll, Grant etc). The doors probably don’t look much like that.


There’s a rowdy discussion over at Theatre Notes regarding Kantor’s successor. Since he’s not actually leaving the building until late next year, all this talk will probably go dormant for a while until early 2010, but here are a few thoughts:

Kantor, like Phillips and a gaggle of ADs around the country, is a director. It seems pretty standard today to appoint company ADs who are active artists themselves. I don’t reckon this will change, although it would be interesting if it did.

The next comer will have to fit in well with the culture that already exists at Malthouse – unless Stephen Armstrong takes his leave too, it’ll need to be someone who complements his vision for the company (and if Armstrong heads off into the wide blue yonder I can’t even imagine what Malthouse will look like in a few years).

The next AD won’t be a straight-up “play” person, since the Board is going to want to keep pushing in the direction Kantor’s been driving rather than reverting to the Playbox model which would be like trying to reheat the lasagne you found in a freezer left behind by previous tenants.

The company has had great success bringing in young audiences and indie performance fans as well as dancegoers; the replacement will have to be able to click into that groove too (ie someone who knows better than to use a term like “click into that groove”).

I’d tip the odds towards someone who’s collaborated with Malthouse extensively already, since they’re going to be familiar with the processes there.

SO: though I have no idea if they’d even be interested in the gig, here’s a quick shortlist of contenders who spring to mind.

Wesley Enoch. Frequent collaborator with Malthouse, has worked with Armstrong forever.

Matt Lutton. Stepped into Kantor’s shoes to direct Tartuffe when the AD had was forced to pull out for health reasons. Lutton’s only in his mid-twenties; he’s directed ThinIce in WA and been invited to direct for the STC, though.

Tom Wright. Makes sense in some ways – he’s perfectly aligned with the kind of theatre Kantor was making, but I don’t know enough about his Boss credentials to tip him either way.

Chris Kohn. Has the chops to do the job, easily. Knows Malthouse and is currently AD for Arena.

They’re my top picks, although there are plenty more names that could make a longer list. It’s entirely XY-chromosomed, I realise, but that’s another story.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Not you again.

Oh alright, come on in. This is the new blog by me, "JOHN BAILEY". It is dedicated to Melbourne's "ARTS CULTURE" and will cover all kinds of things.

Last year I figure I got along to around 200 live performances plus some music and visual art and a few films and other things. I probably got to write on a little over half, so this site will be a way to take up the slack.

I'll try to make this place a pretty comprehensive look at what's happening in Melbourne right now, so there'll be reviews and news and just as much self-indulgence as I provide elsewhere, but at least more relevant to people who want to read about "THE ARTS" and not ant facts or Jean-Claude Van Damme or space whales.

Another arts blog?


Disclaimer: This site will be riddled with conflicts of interest which will only sometimes be mentioned. This is because I have PERSONALLY MET and even spoken with hundreds of the many thousands of artists working in Australia today. Just yesterday one came into my shop and bought some rainbow coloured kneepads. A few hours later another came in and bought a nice red jumper. Also, I was once walking home when a really good director pulled up next to me and gave me a lift. It turns out that I used to play SPORTS with his girlfriend, who was driving. I also went to uni with a lot of very talented artists who are now achieving the national and sometimes international recognition they deserve. About a year ago I saw Barry Dickins in the street and said hello and he invited me in for a cup of tea and a crumpet. I had an unexpected dance-off with a FAIRLY FAMOUS WRITER ages ago which ended when she threatened me with a pot of water from the stove. And so forth. Such conflicts of interest can be understood by another name - "HAVING ANY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ARTS IN MELBOURNE" - and are quite unavoidable. But I like to believe that a certain amount of professionalism and even-handednes will also be on display here.


That is elsewhere and will have its own blog.

Q: OK.

That is not a question.