Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: The Trocks


Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

The Trocks are a travesty.

I mean this in the classical sense. When it came to the stage the word originally meant cross-dressing – dressing in the guise of another, but more frequently as someone of the opposite sex. Travesty as a genre is traditionally conflated with burlesque. Both terms seem to have lost a lot of their older meaning these days, as well as what made them so interesting.

When someone calls something a travesty of justice, or says that Obama’s winning made a travesty of the Nobel Peace Prize, or that rapist footballers make a travesty of the sport, they’re not talking about the theatrical form of travesty. Sometimes they mean ‘mockery’ or ‘parody’ but that’s not really accurate usage either. In some cases they even mean ‘tragedy’ but that term is just as abused to the point of meaninglessness.

My point is that ‘travesty’ in its older sense was a very positive thing (to its fans, at least).

Transvestism had power. It was an exception, sure, but it also had the potential to be exceptional.

What about we get male ballet dancers dressing up as female ballet dancers? The whole concept sounds like the kind of idea someone starts kicking about after N+1 drinks on a Friday night (if N=the point at which you should stop drinking). Most of those ideas end the same way: with you naked and strapped to the inside of a giant tyre-tube as your “friends” roll you down your ex’s driveway at midnight singing La Marseillaise. The Trocks, on the other hand, have managed to spin a 35-years-and-counting career out of their harebrained scheme.

Of course you can’t milk three decades-plus out of such a simple concept and the Trocks add a few extra layers to this lasagne. First up there’s the slapstick, whereby they engage in much clowning and falling over and “Whoops Matron!”-style mugging. Then there’s the lampooning of ballet itself, which is generally pretty austere and humourless (or not funny when it tries to be) and so is prime for irreverent treatment. Here they take on particular genres of classical dance, to mixed effect. The sequence satirising Merce Cunningham’s style was just plain dumb: three dancers moving in a pointless abstracted way while a pair of musicians played increasingly silly ‘instruments’ – kazoos, paper bags, kitchen utensils. Look how ridiculous postmodern dance is. Right.

But beyond all of these are the claims that the Trocks, despite the comedy, are also first-rate dancers. They’re good. Don’t get me wrong there. But they’re not that good. On opening night there were plenty of synchronised bits that were out of sync, a couple of wobbly moments that weren’t meant to be wobbly, and only a few really impressive pieces of challenging choreography. I know the objection: they’re big blokes doing things that are amazingly hard for a tiny woman to do! Well, hard for a reason. An 80-kilo man is not built to stay en pointe for long. Neither is a 40-kilo woman, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. Imitating what is already a pretty ludicrous activity and making it even harder doesn’t make it more astounding. It just highlights what’s so odd about the whole endeavour in the first place.

This is where the weird and complicated gender politics of male drag come in. There are a few schools of thought here. One is that drag upsets traditional gender roles by revealing how they’re just based on masquerade and performance, and aren’t dependent on biological sex. Drag shows that gender is fluid, and is liberating – and fun – because it laughs at the straightjacketing we experience in a gendered society.

Then there’s the argument that drag reverses gender typing only to reaffirm it. This is the old argument about the way supposedly revolutionary, carnivalesque antics provide a moment of release in which power flows seem to be reversed, but once the pressure valve has gone off the status quo reasserts itself. The Trocks on stage, according to this thinking, are so enjoyable only because we don’t have the Trocks in real life.

There’s also the veeeery difficult ideas about drag raised by theorist Judith Butler. She was a big proponent of drag’s revolutionary capacities at first but her thinking altered over time. She began to assert that the specific politics of a lot of drag acts were very conservative – they involved a male colonising the already artificial performance of “the feminine” and reclaiming even that space for the patriarchy, by being more “feminine” than even a woman could be. You could extend this argument into the nineties and noughties to look at how female celebrities have tried to match this hyper-femininity by altering their bodies so much as to create a standard of femaleness that is utterly at odds with what you’re born with. From Pamela to Paris we’ve seen women who seem to be trying to emulate drag queens who themselves are trying to emulate women. The debate is a lot more nuanced than this but I’m just aiming for the outlines here.

The Trocks don’t really do that much that’s subversive, in any case. There’s certainly nothing in their show that you wouldn’t see on prime time commercial TV, or wouldn’t have seen there 30 years ago. Guys have been frocking up for centuries for popular amusement. And the Trocks offer an oddly sexless show: though there’s transvestism there’s no sexuality of any sort (although this can also be said for ballet in general). This kind of defuses any dangerous energy produced by the drag.
If we’re laughing, then, it’s at what? At ballet? Easy target. I laugh at ballet all the time. At the silly slapstick? Not really top-shelf comedy. At men dressed as women? You can find that at the most reactionary bloke’s buck’s night.

So there: I’ve explained why I don’t think the Trocks are that much chop in the classical ballet department and then I’ve gone on to explain why I don’t think the jokes really work. My god. What a grumpy old farter I’ve become. Nobody likes someone who tries to explain why a joke doesn’t work. It only proves that I didn’t get it. All credit to those (many, many people) who do.

The Arts Centre. Ends tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reviews: Invisible Stains; When the Rain Stops Falling


By Acting Company 2009, VCAM.

As I was watching Invisible Stains I kept being reminded of a show I’d seen before but couldn’t rightly figure what it was. Then I did. Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail. And that was like a kick in the hippocampus. Why was I comparing the most astonishing piece of performance I have ever witnessed (and, I increasingly feel, will ever witness) to a graduating production at VCAM?

W – in the vulgar argot – TF?

There are a few surface similarities. Firstly, Invisible Stains has a big cast. This is standard biz for a drama school show since everyone needs their moment to shine and you’ve usually got a couple dozen of the little goobers to get through. Sometimes this leads to arse-punishing productions of four hours or more. Thankfully Invisible Stains clocks in at under two. And there’s also the perennial problem whereby certain students are featured more prominently than others, and in this case there were still a few people who popped up an hour and a half in and had me wondering ‘where the dickens have you been all this time?’

I do love a large cast. I missed the Ridiculusmus playreadings at the Fringe F
estival this year but when I heard that one had featured a cast of 50 I was outraged. My response was something like:


So yes, I do have an oddball jonesing for too many performers onstage at once.

But big casts don’t make great shows by any means. Another basic thing Invisible Stains shares with Caravansérail is big intents. Both span continents and cultures and decad
es and feature not just dozens of cast members but hundreds of characters. They’re not intimate in scale – they’re not even epic, since the epic usually maintains a focus on individuals within the longue durée. They’re spectacular. Individuals aren’t the point: or at least they don’t act as metonyms for a transcendent point.

Because there is no point.

This is what connects Invisible Stains and Le Dernier Caravansérail.

They are pointless.

They are without a point.

They are not without a purpose.

But they are without a centre.

It’s impossible (or beside the point) to say what either show is ‘about’. This is funny, since both shows employ aboutness as their method. They have no core, but this is what makes them so fascinating.

Comparison: in Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Eating Animals (which will get its own post soon) he mentions a backyard astronomer telling him that sometimes, to see a faint star, you need to look around it. The most sensitive parts of the human eye aren’t the ones we use to focus on objects but are at the periphery of our ocular mechanisms, so by glancing around the object in question we can see it better than if we try to stare at it. Try it.

Comparison: In Camera Lucida, the book Roland Barthes wrote after his mother died and not long before he died, he discussed his photographic notions of the studium and the punctum. The studium is the cultural white noise of a photograph: the stuff we pass over, the social content that becomes the background due to our collective familiarity with it, the way journalistic photography doesn’t reach us on a personal level but bleeds into a more general gloss of reality.

The punctum is that point in a photograph that erupts from the studium,
‘wounding’ us with an unexpectedly personal poignancy. We suddenly find something that pierces us, that makes the photograph a private encounter rather than a social one.

Barthes seems to privilege the punctum. The photo that creates a moment of intimate connection between image and viewer.

Some of the most interesting contemporary theatre goes the other way
. Presents us with the studium. Looks around the star to bring it to our attention.

Invisible Stains flickers through dozens, maybe hundreds of moments in collective memory. It looks at how that cultural memory is shored up (as well as the process of forgetting it entails – all memory, individual and cultural, is selective). So when a man in a suit carrying a briefcase appears in a daze, his hair and clothes covered in dust, we know instantly what is not being shown here. Two rifle-carrying soldiers in a jungle hear a helicopter overhead and another mist of dust begins to fall on them. Four women in underwear are inspected by a silent guard, who smells the hair of each in turn before ordering one apart from the others.

The various situations are often quick, sometimes less than a minute, and bleed together in a dizzying fashion. Some recur, or are echoed by others, and some seem to point to
very different contexts at the same time. Some are hard to recognise, too. But there is so much going on here, all of the time, that the mind has to unfocus its attempts to determine what the ‘point’ is – what the unifying principle or theme or message or whatever is – and try rather to take in the whole. That’s why I was reminded of Caravansérail: there’s no narrative giving import to certain characters and moments while others are subtext or side-plot or just plain padding. There are also no connections between most of these scenes beyond aesthetic ones. Perhaps the closest comes during a startling monologue in which it is explained, mathematically, how every person in the theatre is genetically related.

There are some daggy moments in the show, or things that just don’t work. One of the recurring and contrasting sequences sees the entire cast at a wild party, a decadent counterpoint to the sufferings that make up the rest of the show. It’s an annoying undergrad scene, which only later became more forgivable to me as it became clear that this is exactly the kind of annoying undergrad life that some people (including acting students) indulge in. When some kids try to waterboard one legless partymember and film it on their phones so they can post it to YouTube, you realise how this terrifying political and historical blindness is being held up against real instances of torture (and much else). It also makes a lot of sense when you read director Tanya Gerstle’s program notes, in which she wondered whether this generation really has the right to ‘pretend’ the
suffering of others (especially in comfortable, often clueless Australia). Given the level of rigour and self-scrutiny with which the cast and crew clearly took to Invisible Stains, I’d say they’ve earned that right.

Space 28, VCAM, ends tomorrow.


By Melbourne Theatre Company.

Andrew Bovell’s latest covers equally broad territory in a way that, for me, is far more trite and ineffective. It’s a saga spanning 80 years (the 50s until 2039) and leaps between different time frames, the same characters reappearing in several, sometimes played by different actors. Its scope is pretty massive, and it touches on a whole bunch of big themes. But it didn’t work for me. It felt as if a bunch of boxes were being lined up onstage with a word written on each: incest, suicide, euthanasia, alcoholism, climate change. Then the box was opened and it was empty. Issues were being flagged, but never really investigated, so I had the distinct feeling of seeing a very important play without anything actually taking place.

I think the problem was the genre of theatre employed: the multi-generational family saga. In contrast to Invisible Stains, this was history as incarnated only through a few individual characters. It’s intensely insular, and nobody stands for anything more than their own unique story. To really inflate this sense of narrative claustrophobia, WTRSF repeats the same stories across its entire timeframe, so that the same lines, actions, and relationships recur endlessly. It’s not just going with the old ‘history repeats itself’ riff; it’s almost a paranoid vision in which Everything Connects.

Which is another problem. With different genres an audience will accept different levels of coincidence or obvious narrative implausibility – a huge number of chance occurrences are welcomed in comedy, for instance, and taking that to a ridiculous level is what makes farce work. Surrealism, too, thrives on drawing lines between apparently discrete phenomena (cf. Dali’s ‘paranoid-critical’ method). In realist drama, however, you can’t overindulge in coincidence and expect your audience to suspend their belief. I don’t want to give away details, but WTRSF features so many honestly impossible coincidences that my jaw was hanging. Is Bovell attempting to shift the play out of the world of the Realist Aussie Play? Because if so, it needs a very different production than the one it receives here.

WTRSF might be saying something about repeating the mistakes of the past unless we learn from them, but the point is muddled. Here, the unspoken sins of 80s years ago are still destroying the lives of a future generation. But (SPOILER ALERT) the proposed solution is ludicrous: in a climactic scene, a character is given a bunch of props from his only living relative, who explains that he doesn't know what their significance is but that they hold the key to ending this cycle of misery. What? What the hell is the guy supposed to do with that? Of course we know what all of the Significant Props mean because we've been told already, but no one still alive within the play has a clue. Man, I'd hate to be the guy put in charge of sorting out his history that way. (At least he wasn't given one particular prop pivotal to the plot, I might add. That would really have messed him up).

The cast are fine, sometimes very good. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the London production featured Leah Purcell and Naomi Bentley playing the same character (older and younger) - that would have added a racial reading to the play that doesn't seem that popular right now in Oz. I was also surprised that the minimal set worked quite well, given the grand capacities for more showy production numbers offered by the Sumner. But for a show that has played three national festivals and is being hailed as a modern classic, I was left wondering what people are seeing in this thing. In fact, I wasn’t really left with much beyond that wondering. If anyone can tell me one thing that will stick in the memory – individual or cultural – about this piece, I’m all ears.

Sumner Theatre. Ends 22 November.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Bastardy actor blocked

I never got around to seeing Bastardy, the doco on actor Jack Charles. By all accounts it's a brilliant film and Charles is a complicated character whose contributions to Australian theatre have been considerable. His life has been just as dramatic; his hundreds of acting credits are matched by a history of addiction, homelessness, criminal activity and the difficulties of living as both gay and Aboriginal over decades in which both weren't (aren't...) exactly positive calling cards in mainstream Aussie culture. Yesterday I received notice of the following: "LEGENDARY ABORIGINAL ACTOR AND CULTURAL LEADER DENIED ACCESS TO THE UK

Jack was recently invited to speak before a series of screenings of Bastardy at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival- one of the most prestigious documentary festivals in the world.

On the 22nd of October Jack was denied entry to the United Kingdom because of his previous criminal record.

Friends and supporters of Jack are now desperately seeking anyone who can leverage intervention on a federal government level;

Please help give Jack this incredibly important cultural opportunity to speak at this international forum.

The full press release is available here:

As I say, I haven't seen the film so I can't really comment, but thought the story of interest.

Reviews: Black Marrow; Le Salon


By Erna Omarsdottir & Damien Jalet/Chunky Move

Yesterday’s Age review of Black Marrow suggested that it might be “the most disappointing offering” in this year’s MIAF. I would never put it that way, but after looking at the statement from a few angles I have to say that it is indeed a true and correct one. Here’s why I think so:
The reviewer (Jordan Beth Vincent) doesn’t call Black Marrow the w
orst thing in the festival. She doesn’t call the piece ‘bad’. She calls it ‘disappointing’. This is less of a straight statement of quality and more of a relative statement about the gap between expectation and result.

The ‘most’ means that that gap was wider than in any other experience at
the festival. It stands to reason, then, that a show could be much ‘worse’ than Black Marrow but not be the most disappointing. That’s possible.

And then there’s the question: disappointing for whom? For JBV, obviously. So in that regard it’s a true thing to say. I don’t know what her expectations were, but I’d guess they were pretty high.

And I agree. I was expecting (and hoping) to get a lot more out of the show than I did. I’m not sure if it was the most disappointing for me (tug-of-war with When the Rain Stops Falling, there). But for the sake of argument, let’s say that it was.

So for two people it was the most disappointing thing in the festival (and another caveat: that we’ve seen. I don’t think it’s possible to see everything in the festival. I might be wrong, but even so, I doubt anyone has seen every single thing).

This is why it’s a true statement. It’s true that for some viewers with particular expectations, Black Marrow was the most disappointing thing (that they’ve seen) in the festival.

What do we do with this fact? Beats the marrow out of me.

Because on opening night there were a lot of people who loved the show. I spoke to a few of them and they very openly enjoyed it and thought it was right on the money. Some others, not so much. So it’s also objectively true to say that Black Marrow is not the most disappointing show in the festival.

Now, what I’m doing here is the figurative equivalent of a blindfolded child bashing the piñata of art with the gnarled baton of relativism and expecting the sweet candy of understanding to shower upon us all. The encouraging hoots of older relatives echo in my ears but do not help me find my invisible target, and when I finally give up after hours of wild swinging and remove the ratty eyemask of subjectivity, I notice that I am alone and the sun has long since set and the folding tables and chairs and, indeed, the piñata itself have been cleared away for some time, so that I am left standing in the dusty moonlit courtyard holding my dumb stick of relativity which, it turns out, had been cleverly swapped for a mouldy, crumbling baguette earlier in the day by some cheeky cousin.

So let me holster my metaphors and get back to the show.

Black Marrow isn’t much like Chunky Move’s stuff. I’m guessing that the two guest choreographers (one from Iceland, one from Belgium) were given pretty free rein. There’s less integration of cutting-edge technology, less concern with using dance to exploring contemporary social life, and very a different style of physicality. It’s almost dance theatre in some respects, and the emphasis is more on visually striking set pieces than choreography per se.

It starts out well: a heap of oozing black substances shifting around the stage, both primordial and post-civilisation. Black detritus, occasionally suggesting living (though non-human) black figures somewhere inside. A spiny, difficult to discern black creature is occasionally glimpsed somewhere in the waves of black effluent. Beneath an expanse of glittery black fabric amorphous somethings rise up and disappear or merge to form single beings before disappearing into the black fluid. If you can’t tell yet, there’s a whole lot of black. In fact there’s nothing but black.

This sequence is probably the most effective in the show, even if you don’t see a single dancer directly. From here a pretty broad and barely related range of scenes play out, i
ncluding an extended bit in which the dancers become an interlinked, dehumanised machine to the tune of an unrelenting industrial beat; an uncontrolled bit of lounge-lizard style ad-libbing from a Portuguese man in a nifty grey suit; a bewildering piece concerning the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that doesn’t really go anywhere; and a frankly horrible scene in which a man travels into a woman’s womb to retrieve a very special but ultimately silly piece of horrid symbolism.

I’m finding it harder to write about this show the more I think about it. I could elucidate the reasons why I didn’t think it worked on so many levels, but I’m simultaneously
aware of why it did work for others. I’ll put it this way: it’s a big, ambitious, deeply problematic piece of performance that has divided people, and that’s normally recommendation enough for me to go out and buy a ticket (I do actually buy a lot of tickets to shows, which surprises some people).

To return to the solipsistic beginnings of this review: it was hugely disappointing, for me (like this review). But if I met the me who hadn’t seen it, would I recommend that I do so? Probably. Just so’s the other me could make up his own mind.

At the Merlyn, Malthouse. Ends tonight.


By Peeping Tom

This one is great. Probably my favourite show in the fest. Definitely the best show featuring incontinence that I’ve seen this year. I did have high expectations, again, but they were mostly met. In fact it really was the show that I was expecting to see. Is that a good thing? I’d watched the YouTube clip below and was really excited about the choreography.

This is dance theatre proper, proudly announcing itself as such. It has a narrative of sorts, and characters, but progresses more through movement than storytelling. The
characters don’t speak much, and it’s not a literal (or literary) piece. But you get a good hang on who everybody is and where things go.

It centres on an old man and his family (adult children, mostly). It’s pretty much all about these family dynamics and how the process of aging alters them. There are some beautiful sequences which linger in the memory. Ah, I won’t go on as it a show of very pleasant surprises, so if you have a ticket to tonight’s final showing then good on ya.

If not, call the number below and have yourself a grand ol’ evening too.

At the Playhouse, Arts Centre. Ends tonight.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reviews: Apocalypse Bear Trilogy; Siren


By Stuck Pigs Squealing/MTC.

Yesterday Brian Lipson unexpectedly walked into my living room. He was wearing some cycling gear. He had a look around and we talked for a while.

(This fact is the ‘hook’ I’m using for this review. A hook is something interesting or unusual that pulls you into a piece of writing. Sometimes it is referred to again at later points in the piece, in order to create a sense of continuity and coherence).

In Stuck Pigs Squealing’s Apocalypse Bear Trilogy, a big furry bear unexpectedly walks into people’s lives at pivotal moments. They talk for a while.

(This is the ‘hook’ of the play, as written by Lally Katz. It’s the thing that ties together the three discrete parts of the overall work).

In Apocalypse Bear, Brian Lipson wears the bear suit and Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin play the various people he visits. Each of the play’s sections unfold in a slow, measured manner and are performed in a muted, fairly static way. This is in contrast to the usual erratic and surprising pacing of Katz’s signature style of writing.

(A ‘style’, here, refers to features of an artist’s work which are consistent and recognisable across a range of individual creations. In Katz’s case, this ‘style’ might include: uncanny surrealist intrusions into everyday reality; a metatheatrical playfulness; ironic humour; complex allusions to pop cultural forms which have sometimes lost popular currency. In my case, ‘style’ might include: self-indulgent made-up words to spice up a review (see ‘misosteopathic’ in my last post); gratuitous references to myself and my uninformed opinions; a false sense of humility and/or patently false attempts at self-deprecation; frequent boring digressions such as this one.

Apocalypse Bear is an uneven piece, mainly because it seems quite distinct from Stuck Pigs’ usual output. Having Lipson and Mullins direct is probably a part of this: the muted pacing and lack of physicality means that it edges close to being boring in parts. If you stick it out until the end, though, this choice makes sense.

The final, most fascinating section presents a married couple whose relationship seethes with an anxious undercurrent. He lies in bed reading as she comes home and begins a conversation. From the outset there’s a compelling tension – he still holds his book up awkwardly to one side, clearly hoping to resume reading soon. But he also explains to her how committed he is to listening to her problems, and accepting that even if he thinks those problems are rubbish their effect on her is still importantly. This is a brilliant little interplay, perfectly framing a relationship in which attempts at honest and open communication themselves hinder actual communication. It’s reflected throughout the rest of the piece in subtle and varied ways, but for me the clincher comes when she begins to relate a recent dream she had. This goes on. And on. And on. And like most people’s dreams, it’s vaguely interesting but not that compelling because you didn’t have it yourself. Nobody really cares to hear someone droning on about their night time wanderings. But we have to. The monotony, however, gradually creates an atmosphere of dream itself, since we can’t escape. And, when the telling is done, an exquisite effect takes place: it’s like when you wake from a dream to find yourself in another. The notion of reality as a solid ground to fall back on drops away, and by the end you’re left kicking out in the void and wondering if you’ll ever find earth again.

So: the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy unexpectedly wanders into your subconscious and has a look around and a little chat.

(This is the end of the review).

Lawler Studio, MTC. Ends Saturday.


By Ray Lee.

This performance is prefaced by an attendant giving a list of Things You Should Know. They’re mostly straightforward – it’s a low-lighting thing, there are cobblestones, watch your step etc. She ends by telling us that the artists have demanded that there be NO SPEAKING during the work. This gave me a bit of an ill-tempered sneer.

But not half an hour later, I was the one shooting purposeful glares at a couple speaking behind me! Lo, how the tables turned! But seriously, they wouldn’t shut up. I understood what the performers were on about.

The work is in the MIAF guide under “experiential” which is as good as saying “well where the hell would you put it?” It’s part installation, part live art, part sound art and part performance. Two guys wander around a forest of metal tripods of various sizes, switching on the sound generating devices mounted on top of each and setting them spinning. I counted 24 in all. Each machine emits a different tone but their pitches are modulated to form a complementary harmony ranging right across the frequency spectrum. The lower frequency speakers are attached to the lowest tripods, whereas the highest ones are so elevated that they require a ladder to reach.

The spinning effect adds an extra element to the soundscape, as it creates the sensation of sound itself moving. Moreover, as you could wander around the installation you could modulate the score yourself, by choosing which set of speakers to stand near.

I really enjoyed the 45 minute piece, but I think that might have been largely due to my long interest in dronology (no, I didn’t make the term up). Others I know found Siren deathly dull, and I even received an email from someone recently who’d seen the thing in Edinburgh and walked out hating it.
There’s a definite religious asceticism to the piece – it’s so pure, so austere, so minimal. Everything is stripped back to a minimum functionality, and there’s nothing to the devices themselves that doesn’t serve a utilitarian purpose. I suppose this was what I found most disappointing: I would have liked embellishments or aspects of the work that engaged on different levels, rather than reducing everything to a kind of monastic severity. As sound art, it never produces the overwhelming effect needed to alter the consciousness of the audience, but it doesn’t gesture too wildly towards other intentions, either. It seemed to me an enjoyable prototype of the kind of pomo cyborg creations Donna Haraway calls for, those ‘machines made of sunshine’. But that phrase was coined more than two decades ago, and I’m not sure this work couldn’t have existed that far back either.

At Arts House, Meat Market. Ends Sunday.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reviews: Pornography; Terminus


By Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg.

A bit of a mix-up (my end I think) meant that my tickets for Pornography weren’t at the Arts Centre when I arrived. A stranger standing nearby had a spare, though, as one of his party hadn’t shown. He gave it to me. Thanks, Greg, wherever you may be.

Pornography is a very 'festival' kind of show – very big, very internationa
l, very often representing certain trends which are very current right now. The kind of thing that wouldn’t tour to Melbourne without festival backing, but not due to any lack of merit. It has a large cast, a massive set, and is sufficiently arty enough not to have the mainstream appeal required to tour Oz on ticket sales alone. It’s an extremely strong show and I’d call it one of MIAF’s best this year.

It’s composed of seven sequences which aren’t explicitly connected, though each occurs in the week surrounding the 2005 London terrorist attacks. These figure into the narratives at times, but it’s certainly not “about” those events. It’s much looser than that.

One piece follows a violent, racist schoolboy harbouring horrific longings for hi
s teacher; another sees two adult siblings getting hysterically drunk and getting it on; another has an older academic befriending a former student and masturbating pathetically while she dances on a table. It sounds nastier than it is – in fact, it’s quite a funny and poetic piece of theatre.

The script was written by Brit Simon Stephens (his Motortown received a fantastic production by Red Stitch last year). Hamburg’s Deutsches Schauspielhaus staged this production, which leads to some wonderful dissonances: it’s performed in German and I constantly found myself forgetting that this was a play written in and very specifically set within London. It develops a more universal, pan-cultural aspect due to the translation, though sometimes it’s not w
ord-perfect, as even my limited German picked up. (I mean my knowledge of German. I don’t have a limited German friend).

The production itself is beautiful: the performances are great, the staging faultless, and only the projected surtitles gave me a major problem, but that’s because Greg’s ticket was about four rows from the front and I had to crane my neck in misosteopathic ways just to read what was being said, and that also meant that I couldn’t watch the stage at the same time I was reading the translations. Verdammt scheiße nochmal!
No thanks there, Greg.

Maybe it was just the German link, but for some reason I was thinking about the exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ that the Nazis organised in 1937. A massive number of works were collected from around Germany and displayed in Munich in order to show to gallery-goers how corrupt and morally bankrupt modern art had become. It was a strange and terrible enterprise – an exhibition aimed to illustrate how bad its featured contents were.

I’m not slinging accusations of fascism at Simon Stephens here, but the eyebrow-raising contents of Pornography also seem unnervingly close to a condemnation of the degeneracy of modern life. The pornography of the title is figurative, referring to a world in which humans have become objects and nothing is unthinkable. It’s a bit like Baudrillard’s description of postmodern life as obscene – if meaning is created in the gaps, in our apprehending the space between what is shown and what isn’t, then the sheer excess of our world today does away with meanin
g simply by making everything available for display. There’s no more room for possibility or imagination, since everything that can be imagined has already been shown.

Pornography presents a world in which every taboo has been broken, in which morality is just a lingering ghost, in which polyphony drowns out meaning. Importantly, the fractured Tower of Babel that makes up the stage backdrop is eerily resonant here: the biblical tower of cultures united was an offence against God, who got miffed and scattered its inhabitants by making them speak different languages. (I just checked that against my faulty memory/poor religiou
s education and it turns out that in the Bible the Tower wasn’t destroyed; the inhabitants just stopped building it when they couldn’t understand each other anymore).

So: what’s the significance here? Are we playing god in lamenting the perverse plurality of this society? Or are we supposed to accept these freaks whose Otherness seems so unacceptable? Or is intolerance of difference a common theme in the various characters themselves, whose reactions (neo-Nazism, terrorism, invective, self-hatred or obsessive desire) are really responses to their inability to meaningfully communicate with the others around them? Dunno. Just some thoughts.

Season ended.


By Abbey Theatre.

When I picked up my tickets to THIS show (at the Malthouse) I saw that I was seated in the balcony, and thought that was sweet since I hadn’t been up there for a while. But arriving at the theatre door I was told to keep heading up the stairs to the second balcony. Holy crap! In all my years I never even knew there was a third level to the Merlyn Theatre! Now I do, and I also know that the back row of the dress circle is about three kilometres from the stage. This turned out to be a good thing, however, since Terminus isn’t really a visually exciting show and works best as an aural experience. The three performers mostly just stand there telling the story. It’s pretty gross, too, so being able to shudder and clutch your stomach well out of sight of your fellow punters isn’t so bad.

What Terminus lacks in the people-moving-around-doing-things department it more than makes up for in descriptions of eye-gouging. It’s something obviously lacking from much contemporary theatre and I wondered if it was an allusion to King Lear. I guess that would make Gloucester a hefty lesbian interrupted while trying to perform an abortion on a drunk woman using a broomstick, which might be stretching things a bit, but either way the words “Shakespeare for our times” began to rumble around the back of my throat during this bit. Actually, that might have just been my dinner rising to the occasion.

Terminus is very reminiscent of Clive Barker, or David Cronenberg, or perhaps Neil Gaiman with the gore factor turned up a notch. It’s kind of magical realism but I hesitate to use that term as it usually implies a pretty stomachable kind of fantasy, and this isn’t really that. The piece is composed of three interrelated monologues: a woman dies violently but is saved from the angels of deliverance by a vengeful soul incarnated as thousands of worms; a serial killer leaves a trail of guts across Ireland; a teacher tries to save a former student from the aforementioned abortion only to end up witnessing a kind of horrible miracle.

The work is extremely sharp and polished and quite a memorable thing. I doesn’t really suggest itself to any kind of deeper reading, and doesn’t speak of much beyond the fantasy it elucidates. But this isn’t to say that it doesn’t linger in the mind well after viewing – it certainly does, but only because of the vivid and terrible imagery and powerful performances. That’s good enough, I think, although it doesn’t seem so much of a ‘festival’ show as Pornography, simply because it’s more of a good tale well told than something that questions the possibilities of an art form. Maybe that’s just because I’m buddy-buddy enough with fantasy and horror to be reasonably comfortable with the narrative; perhaps putting such a genre piece on a festival platform is a radical move in itself.

Season ended.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fringe out (and one more review)

Fringe Closing Night/Awards party was on Saturday and it was bonza. I like awards nights when you’ve seen enough of the contenders to care who wins (or even recognise who they are). I don’t like reading awards night press releases though. I guess they don’t feel as ‘live’. If you’re of like mind, excuse the list below or just skip past it.

The awards night was pretty startling for one reason: when every winner was announced, the hundreds of people present went crazier ‘n a shithouse rat with whooping and hollering and applauding loudly. There didn’t seem to be any disappointment or resentment from people who missed out, which is weird. Not that I expected booing, but there’s a difference between polite but grudging applause and the sort of appreciation the winners were getting. The other strange question this response raises is: how did all of these artists and punters even know the people getting awards were worth praising? It felt as if they’d all gone to their shows or knew their work beforehand, which says a lot about the community present and their awareness of their peers. Good stuff, anyway.
So here (briefly) are the winners:

ACAPTA Award (circus): Mitchell Jones (Fallen)

Adelaide Fringe Awards: Yuri Wells/En Route

Auspicious Arts Award (Best Emerging Producer): Stephanie Brotchie (Vigilantelope: Tale of the Golden Lease)

Brisbane Comedy Festival Award: Claudia O’Doherty (Monster of the Deep 3D)

Circus Oz Award: Jess Love (And the Little One Said)

Falls Festival Award: Letters to Isaac, by Small Chance Theatre

Gasworks Award: Six Women Standing in Front of a White Wall, by Little Dove Theatre Art

Kultour Tour Development Award: Attract/Repel, by the Melbourne Town Players

Melbourne Airport Award for Best Newcomer: Tommy Bradson for “When the Sex is Gone”

Melbourne Cabaret Festival Award: In Search of Atlantis

Melbourne Dramatists’ New Writing Award: Tom Holloway for his script And No More Shall We Part

The Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development (Faculty of VCA and Music, University of Melbourne) Award for Indigenous Fringe Artist of the Year: Naretha Williams, for Earth, Fire, Rain, Wind.


Best Cabaret: When the Sex is Gone, by Tommy Bradson and Jacqueline Morton

Best Circus: Operation, by Trick Circus

Best Comedy: Monster of the Deep 3D, by Claudia O'Doherty

Best Dance: Six Women Standing in Front of a White Walls, by Little Dove Theatre Art

Best Live Art: En Route, by the Betty Booke

Best Music: Aurland, by Michelle Whelan

Best Performance: Candy Bowers in Who's That Chik?

Best School Holiday Program: Bubblewrap and Boxes by Asking For Trouble

Best Special Event: Roarhouse – Inside Out

Best Visual Arts: 'The Lure of Echo', by Sarah Duyshart

Best Venue: Dancing Dog Theatre, Footscray

Fringe Dwellers People’s Choice Award: Copernicus, by Transit Theatre and A Tiny Chorus, by Elbow Room and Denim Jean

There were a few shows I didn’t get around to reviewing here but might try in the next few days.


The closing night party should have been the end of Fringe for me and golly knows it went late enough that a day in recovering was all I had on the cards when I woke up. But I was convinced to trek cross-town to see the final performance of Reverb(1) and it ended up being the perfect way to end the festival. If the closing night was the big explosive climax of a film, an hour in a sun-dappled park on a quiet Sunday afternoon was like the heart-warming epilogue that caps everything off, a shy little coda to remind you that independent artists in Melbourne will be there plugging away year-round whether you hear from them or not.

This first stage of the ongoing project Reverb brought together two dancemakers – Brooke Stamp from Melbourne and Martin Del Amo from Sydney to choreograph four pieces with a quartet of VCA dancers. It was first staged in Bendigo and then in Prahran, which is where I found myself yesterday afternoon at 5pm. The sun had finally broken out so the lighting for the outdoor piece was brilliant – a good crowd of passersby, punters and more than a few respected industry names showed up to the park to see what all the fuss was about. The first two pieces started quietly, without anyone really realising, and played simultaneously – Del Amo’s work saw a trio of dancers on top of a ledge performing a very slow, minimal piece of straight limbs and empty expressions, while Stamp’s was a solo in which the performer moved from an achingly slow collapse to, finally, a very fast and physical act of being dragged away from the audience down a path.

These two pieces didn’t really grab me and while I was enjoying the gentle atmosphere and looped soundtrack there wasn’t much I really engaged with. The performance was also stolen by Natalie Cursio’s son upstaging the dancers. He can’t be more than two I think but he decided to invade the playing spaces unself-consciously and become a part of the dance, sometimes interacting with the performers and sometimes doing an improvised little series of interactions with a group of bubbling fountains. Nobody cared that he was ‘interrupting’ things because it seemed to perfectly complement the setting and liveness of things. It was a really dramatic moment when, after touching and staring at a fountain jet for minutes, he finally stood up and boldly walked right through it. That was awesome.

The next two pieces moved deeper into the park. Stamp’s trio featured three of the dancers in a beautifully playful number that went from a very Balletlab-style sequence to something that was both sharply executed and incredibly playful. It’s sometimes hard to get a dancer to convincingly dance like an idiot but it worked here, bringing a real sense of joy to the park.

The final solo saw the audience move to a rotunda to watch one dancer round out the day. The score was an incredibly lush operatic piece and the dancer began as a twitchy, erratic Edward Scissorhands kind of character. As it progressed, though, his movements became less neurotic and more lively. He began to run about in that spontaneous way kids do (remember when you’d just run for the sake of running, to feel yourself moving, to feel your own body’s potential?). At the work’s close the music had ended and the dancer was left running in circles, round and round, in a suburban park with no noise but the sounds of the streets and birds and cars and backdrop murmur of life in Melbourne.

Like I said, the perfect end to the Festival.

And appropriately, the work was titled “What Remains.”

I got a lift partway home but had a 15 minute walk to get there. That was nice. The sun was low but still throwing its rays slantwise along the street that led me back to my place. Put my audio listening device on random and it choose nicely.

On the way I saw: an old man with a little girl on his shoulders. The man smiled at me and nodded.
Some teens dressed like old-school Goths playing footy in the park.

Two dudes on skateboards riding through the park – one had a slab of beer somehow balanced on his board as he soared along.

A cat that got up for a pat when I walked past, acting slightly as if it was his duty rather than something he wanted.

And that’s all she wrote, folks.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reviews: Iris; When the Sex is Gone


By Gulsen Ozer and Dani-Ela Kayler

Let me preface this by saying that a lot of people LOVED this show. As in really experienced people, people high up in various creative industries, and people whose opinions I admire. Some people thought it was the best thing in the Fringe this year. But me: I dint dun geddit. It didn’t work for me at all. It can be a really frustrating thing to feel like you’re not seeing the show that has other people raving, but that’s what happened to me.

Iris is a two-hander in which a pair of characters (Abigail and Aberdeen) play out a sort of kid relationship based around the absent (and possibly imaginary) Iris. It’s sort of spoken word and sort of abstract theatre, with a lot of dance accompanying everything. The lighting is simple, the only set item a single white chair. I suppose it’s meant to evoke the fantasy worlds of childhood, in which our relations to each other are often catalysed by invented realities which have very real functions – ‘Iris’ is a way for these two to toy with and explore the dynamics of communication and identity, including power relations, affection, suspicion, one-upping and empathy.

But while others did feel that the piece beautifully captures that rich world of childhood, I got nothing. It felt more like a nostalgic longing for childhood than a deep excavation of that period’s complexity and strangeness. A part of my response is probably informed by the fact that I usually don’t like grown-ups playing kids onstage, at least not in that squeaky, wide-eyed and awkward way. If you watch a real kid for more than a few seconds you’ll notice that they think a lot and have highly-developed interior worlds that are mostly dismissed when adults try to play them. A fine contrast can be found in The Hat Box, where after around half an hour I began to think: “Hang on a bit – are these two characters meant to be children?” I still don’t know the answer to that question, and I think that’s because the two figures at the heart of this show are treated with such respect and developed in such a sophisticated way.

The choreographic element of Iris was also confusing to me – I couldn’t see why these people were dancing the whole time or why the movement choices they made were any more appropriate than any others they could have made. It might have even be improvised movement for all I know.
I won’t go on because, again, I likely missed something here and my response is a minority one. If strongly divided opinions is the marker of a show worth catching (and I think it is), then consider this one of those numbers where you’ll just have to decide for yourself.

Ends tonight, North Melbourne Town Hall.


By Tommy Bradson

It’s pretty difficult to convince me to see cabaret. Here’s why:

- People who think ‘cabaret’ is just an excuse to do covers of their favourite songs
- The ubiquitous, done-to-death stage persona of the old gin-swilling lush with the miserable sex life and the smeared mascara
- The Carry On level of “naughty” innuendo
- The pretty average musical abilities
- The one-note tone to most hour-long performances
Etc etc.

Clearly I’m not a big fan of cabaret. I don’t mind people who are, but… not for me.

So I was moaning like a big baby when I was dragged across town last night to see this two-hour long solo show.


I was uptight and grumpy for the first half-hour at least, but grudgingly began to admit that this guy might kinda have something. I don’t know much about Tommy Bradson (I think he’s from Sydney) but he’s a powerhouse performer – kind of like a Paul Capsis junior. Here he gives us two characters in what could really be two shows – the first a hermaphrodite European who relates her sorry life story of sleaze and savagery, the second an ex-boxer with a very nasty side.

A lot of the old cabaret trappings are here: the smeared make-up, the acidic and even offensive jokes, the weary demeanour of the human trainwreck lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. But Bradson fills his creations with so much energy and so many contradictory personality features that you’re never sure where he’ll go next. He flips from flirty and self-effacing to fierce and fearsome in a second, and frequently jumps around through different accents and characters to flesh out the secondary figures in the worlds his characters inhabit. Plus the music is (at least to my ear) completely original, and very well done. It’s a totally live performance, Bradson snapping up any comments overheard in the crowd and incorporating them into the show instantly.

It’s enough to give hope to even the most regularly disappointed of cabaret non-fans – just ask me.

Ends tonight at Dog’s Bar, St Kilda.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Reviews: en route; The Hat Box; Dance Miniature


By Bettybooke

Cities are in some ways about isolation. When you walk down a Melbourne street you can be reasonably confident that, most of the time, people will leave you alone. If someone comes begging or fundraising it can feel as if they’re breaking that unspoken contract and it can lead to discomfort; a tourist asking for directions is less confronting, I suppose because there’s
an implicit knowledge that this interruption of your privacy won’t last longer than necessary. But this urban spaceman thing goes two ways – we shut down our perception of the countless faces and movements and surfaces around us. If only just to survive or, hell, get where we’re going.

en route gently strips away those blinders in a way that is nothing less than revelatory. It’s a solo walk through the hidden spaces of Melbourne, crossing the entire city and taking you to places you didn’t know existed. You walk on your own, guided by text messages, directions piped through an iPod, and markers covertly etched into the spaces of the streets themselves. The listening device also provides musical accompaniment which can drastically alter your awareness of the environment you pass through, and as the journey continues becomes both more dreamlike and more eye-opening.

(If you’ve got a ticket to this work - and it is completely sold out - then you proba
bly shouldn’t read any further yet.)

There are moments of en route that made me feel as if I’d slipped through some invisible membrane into a whole new city from the one I grew up in. It began subtly, simply wandering down graffiti-strewn alleyways that were completely deserted in the middle of the day. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be seeing – was that tiny silver balloon bobbing along the ground ahead of me part of the art? Or just the kind of everyday trace I’d normally overlook? The words chalked on walls; the men sitting idly in a motorcycle repair shop; the painted footsteps climbing from the pavement up a wall. It had to begin this way, so that I would become more attuned to my surroundings without looking for anything in particular, for any goal that guide my attention.

This was just the beginning, though. Later in this long voyage I would find myself sprinting down the middle of a brightly sunlit Bourke St Mall holding hands with a stranger and scattering pigeons for its length. I walked alone down another alleyway and was invited to write a secret thought on its walls, and suddenly saw the dozens, maybe even hundreds of similar thoughts that other participants had already written there, a silent lane filled with voices. And in the piece’s simplest but most beautiful moment I sat in a café window and saw – really saw – the faces that the people around me wear.
en route’s creators bringing in snippets of philosophy and poetry and politics (Merleau-Ponty, Rilke, Tim Flannery) along with Melbourne musicians and the unpredictable, constant flow of real people throughout the metropolis. You’re both alone and inseparable from the
people around, watched somehow by whoever is sending those SMSes and occasionally stared at by other city-goers. But even for someone like me, who doesn’t really dig that kind of attention, it’s ok, because you’re seeing them with new eyes yourself.

Ends Sunday. Everywhere.


By Family of Strangers

This new company first hit my radar with Sunny Side Up, a nice little show I saw earlier this year. It wasn’t a big ground-breaking work but it was quietly and effectively done and I liked it. This new piece is much bigger, far more ambitious, and mostly successful. I’m willing to suggest that Family of Strangers will be the next Stuck Pigs Squealing in about four or five years – not there yet, but if they continue this trajectory they’ll be doing some fascinatingly original work in the not too distant future.
What’s most immediately impressive is the interest in design and costuming, which are truly beautiful here. It’s reminiscent of the junkyard theatre aesthetic but (at least initially) is employed to create something gorgeous to look at rather than just consciously ramshackle.

The plot, too, is adventurous: it starts out simply enough as two people attempt to sail across the ocean to find the missing father of one. By the time you get a handle on what’s going on, however, it begins to tear apart its own premise and reverse your expectations. It’s ve
ry simply to Yuri Wells in this way, but with a different emphasis due to the presence of two performers onstage rather than just one. The play’s darkest themes emerge right in the middle of the piece, as the stage curtains are drawn and a performer steps forward to directly address the audience and wipe away the veneer of cute whimsy which has so far appeared to be the play’s focus.

A live band provides superb accompaniment; the two actors sometimes don’t hit their stride but at other times are very effective. Definitely recommended.

Ends tomorrow at St Martins.


Conceived by Shian Law/Dance Miniature artists

It’s difficult to summarise this collection of short works from emerging dancers. Some work very well, some don’t really work at all. It’s split into two different programs (Dance Miniature 1 and Dance Miniature 2) and I think the former works a lot better than the latter, but I was stuck behind someone with a large head for the second and missed a lot of what was going on so I can’t really review it objectively.

As a collaborative concept, though, I’d like to see this become a regular part of the Fringe fest. Even though there’s a strong independent dance community in Melbourne and a lot of opportunities for workshops and training and meeting others, it’s not nearly enough and seeing young dancers get together and launch something on their own steam is hugely encouraging. More of that, then, ta very much.

Ends tomorrow. The Warehouse, North Melbourne Town Hall.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Who's That Chik? Pt. 2: Even the White People Don't Look Like White People

Anyone who hasn’t been connected to any form of media in the English-speaking world for the past 12 hours might – just might – be unaware that last night a bunch of dudes appeared in blackface on a Hey Hey, It’s Saturday revival show. They were performing a ‘parody’ of a Jackson 5 performance for the Red Faces segment, and after a (bizarrely long) while were gonged off, to audience disapproval. One of the judges, Harry Connick Jr, was clearly offended, and said that if the same routine had appeared in the US it would have been “Hey Hey, There’s No More Show”. Later in the program he explained that “we [Americans] have spent so much time trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we really take it to heart.”

These ‘performers’ weren’t braindead yobbos. They were successful doctors. Anaesthetists, cardiologists, surgeons.

The outrage has been international – not just from those who saw the skit as offensive but from those millions who always leap to defend the rights of straight white men to do and say anything they please. Anything less is Political Correctness Gone Mad/lefty bullshit/itself racist or sexist or homophobic or whatever. No kidding: in online forums some are calling Connick Jr the racist, for being offended.

And, no surprises, when the issue was debated on morning television today the experts called in were white radio and print commentators. One said that it was just a bit of fun, and that people on TV are used to getting their hair and makeup done (???). The other explained that in Australia we love to have a laugh and it’s not offensive because he wasn’t offended, and then said to the hosts that “it’s like that drag queen you had on earlier,” to which one of said hosts had to interject “we weren’t laughing at her.”

Anyway, as usual the argument over whether anyone has a right to be offended is being decided by the people with nothing at stake. And these days, in Australia, being offended is itself offensive to many – if you can’t laugh at yourself (ie if I can’t laugh at you) then that’s your problem.

I’m not going to comment further on this but it was a bit hard to keep writing up this piece on Candy Bowers without constantly returning to the incident. So that’s where I’ll start.

Connick Jr comes from a place where racial struggle has had a long, loud and very public history. Moreover, as Bowers says, even the sometimes violent aspects of those struggles have made it painfully obvious (in the US) that some things are just not allowable, and aren’t just a case of being oversensitive or PC or whatever.

“We haven’t had that violence in our history, that true activism going ‘this representation is not ok, or this isn’t our country.’”

Why do I know more about the history of black America than I do about Australia’s own racial history? I’m ashamed to realise and admit that. And of course it's not like the US is some kind of multiculturual utopia of racial harmony. But the word racism can hardly be spoken here (cf. the vehement denials that attacks on Indian students are racially motivated). While there are plenty who’ll fight for Sam Newman’s right to wear blackface on The Footy Show, there are also plenty who want to silence someone speaking from a marginalised position.

“I’m just one person. You are the dominant culture and yet you want to shut me down or tell me I’m wrong? It’s about never hearing this voice and not wanting to," says Bowers.

“As an actor I was always told to shut up, don’t write about what you fight about, no one will come. I was like, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

A few years ago Lee Lewis penned a Platform Paper on the institutionalised whitewashing of the Australian theatre industry. She told Bowers of the contrasting situation in the States: in New York, Lewis had visited Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, an institution harking back to the 50s which has been crucially involved in changing the face of American theatre. “[Lewis] sat down in front of the casting director, and they said ‘you know what, we’re not interested in you. You’re white, an attractive young woman, you’re the most overpopulated demographic that we see come and audition for stuff. But we’re not interested in ingénues. We’re interested in casting New York City.’”

Australia doesn’t seem interested in casting Australia (whatever that means). Australia likes the ingénues. In the US, it’s not a radical act to include non-white actors in a TV show. “Why doesn’t All Saints look like Grey’s Anatomy, at least?” asks Bowers.

When playwright Tanika Gupta came out to Australia for a conference, says Bowers, she laughed at the faces that fill our advertising billboards: “Even these white people don’t look like white people!”

“It’s difficult to believe because we’re so well-educated,” says Bowers, “we have all these great discussions. But who do you see, and who don’t you see? That’s why there are so many people who don’t know because they’ve just been sitting in it quietly marinating.”

Every theatre company worth its salt across the US and UK has diversity officers. It’s not a strange thing. It’s not a fist-shaking, flag-waving activist thing. ‘Diversity’ has a slightly nervous edge to it here, though. Perhaps we need a term that makes people less defensive. ‘Reality,’ possibly.

Who’s That Chik? has made people angry. People who don’t want to deal with the issues it raises, or don’t know how to begin doing so. Sometimes they turn on Bowers. Here are some of the responses she’s had to deal with:

Theatre is traditionally a white institution.

Bowers: Have you been to Africa? Have you seen the kids in the Northern Territory that can’t even read a book but they’ll make a play? What’s that ownership about? That’s not true.

Non-Anglo migrants are relatively new, so it’ll take longer for them to be reflected by our culture.

Bowers: Asian people have been here a lot longer than most of the families that I know, and to be frank my friend who came here from Poland 12 years ago gets a lot more work than I do and I’m more Aussie than him. This is not about that, this is about colour, about aesthetics, what we like to see.

If an actor is great, they’ll get roles regardless of colour.

Bowers: Lee Lewis said to me: great actors don’t walk into drama school, and great actors don’t walk out of drama school. Great actors are the ones working with great directors on great plays consistently. They’re the ones getting better.

Australia’s not *really* racist, it’s not that bad.

Bowers: It’s weird for you to say it’s not true because I’m telling my story. It’s like saying: I blew my nose. ‘It’s not true.’ I felt really shit being cast as the maid in third year obviously because I’m black. ‘It’s not true.’ No, I did feel like shit. But it’s not allowed! 'You’re not allowed to be emotional; look at what this country’s given you!'

When Bowers was in Edinburgh performing in an Australian comedy showcase she met one of the performers from UK outfit 3 Non Blondes, a trio of African-English comics.

“Ninia came up to me and I was in my Sista She all-in-one fluoro tracksuit. She goes ‘Who are you? Who aaare you?’ I said oh, I’m Candy from Sista She. She says ‘Are you Canadian?’ I’m like no, I’m Australian. And she says ‘Nooo, no. There are no people of colour in Australia. I’ve seen Home and Away, I’ve seen Neighbours.’ I laughed and then I turned around and looked at all the other Aussies in the room and went ‘Ooooh…shit.’”

Near the end of Who’s That Chik?, there’s a song that veers away from comedy. Bowers appears before a backdrop of flames and begins to sing over a heavy, driving beat of pounding drums. The hip-hop clown slips away and is replaced by the powerful voice of a proud, strong poet spitting out her pain into the darkness. She describes the violence the industry – and Australia in general – has inflicted on her, on her family and the countless cultures behind her. It builds to a crescendo in which she howls a mantra with barely-suppressed tears in her eyes:


There is a blockage – a deadly blood clot – in Australia’s culture industry. It prevents much from passing through, as entire lives and histories get stuck in invisible arteries and only the thinnest trickle of insipid blood makes it to the heart and brain. The arts and entertainment seem to be existing on the bare minimum of creative sustenance needed to survive, let alone thrive. Maybe that’s why the country is so weary, so slow to respond, to hear the signals its own organs emit.

This body should be able to repair itself. It shouldn’t require a surgeon to cut out that clot. Especially not one in blackface.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Who's That Chik? Pt. 1.

(Candy Bower's Who's That Chik? has ended, so I'm pulling together a review of the show and an interview I conducted with her a few months ago to discuss the piece and some broader issues in Oz today.)

About five years ago I used to tell anyone who’d listen that Sista She were the most important act in the country. This confused a lot of people because the duo was a hip-hop/comedy outfit. But then they pulled out The Naked MC, a show that so floored me I went out and gathered about ten friends to go back the next night (I don’t even have ten friends so I don’t know how I managed that). These weren’t aficionados of theatre or politics or activism, but they did enjoy hip-hop and comedy so I knew they’d enjoy the night. Which they did.

But like me, they were blown away by the fact that A-grade MC-ing and dope beats gradually morphed into a brutally hilarious dismantling of sexism, homophobia and racism in the comedy and hip-hop industries of Australia. Crucially, Sista She did this from within – MC Rasheda Eda and Sheila Ela MC confronted their own prejudices rather than simply attack those of others, and in doing so forced the audience to question how much they were themselves complicit in the same things.

Most of all, it was brilliantly funny and the tunes (by Busty Beats) were the kind of thing I’d pay money for. The pair have never officially split but they’ve been pursuing their own projects for a while. Sheila (Sarah Ward) stayed in Melbourne and has presented her more recent character Yana Alana around town for a few years; Rasheda (Candy Bowers) has been living back up in Sydney for a while and recently returned to Melbs for a short season at the Arts Centre. Who’s That Chik employed a similar mix of comedy and hip-hop (or the hybrid form Bowers now calls hip-hop theatre) to turn the focus of attack on racism in the performing arts industry in Australia, and if you missed it, well, sucks to be you.

Who’s That Chik? is an intensely personal piece that uses Bowers’ own life story to explore the challenges a big brown girl faces living here today. Actually, ‘challenges’ is a lazy term. Bigotry, institutionalised prejudice and a weak-willed fear of even discussing the situation is more what she faces, and she faces it every day.

I interviewed Bowers earlier this year when she was down for a day before zipping off to the UK after winning a British Council Realise Your Dream award (she’s off to New York and then Manchester soon, I think).

Bowers isn’t an outsider to theatre culture. She was accepted into NIDA (her audition routines are a great inclusion in Who’s That Chik?) and during one number she makes sport of the fact that her status as a token non-Anglo means that other artists of colour would have been denied a place since the institution had made their quota. But when she finished her studies at the institution, she was dealt a blow that still makes her eyes dewy on stage as she describes it.

In her NIDA graduating production, she was cast as “The Maid”. She graduated into the world of Australia’s performing arts as an African servant, in a comic relief role.

That, dear reader, is fucked.

Bowers is a better performer than many actors I’ve seen graduating from NIDA’s hallowed halls. But due to the fact that she’s a big brown girl, the opportunities offered her by the industry are negligible at best. Even as a toddler in dance class she was quietly pushed up the back; by the time she made it to the peak dramatic academy in the country, nothing had changed. And for some reason nobody’s really allowed to mention that.

When Julian Meyrick penned his attack on the way the critical industry pointedly ignored his indigenous casting of Pinter’s The Birthday Party this year, it brought down a shitstorm of defensive wrath. Little of it actually addressed the more salient issues he raised (which were admittedly couched in vitriolic terms and the occasional ad hominem attack). A particularly touchy point was his assertion that the cast were personally upset by the way they were treated by critics. The obvious response is to reply that actors are all subject to tough criticism, and an indigenous cast can’t expect to be handled with kid gloves if they want to be taken seriously. But this is blind ignorance regarding the extraordinary fact that these actors are coming from a very different world from the average MTC performer, and suddenly making it onto an Arts Centre stage doesn’t level the playing field in any way.

Bowers makes a similar comparison to the makeup of the STC’s residency program. “A young girl who came out of NIDA a couple of years after me with an African background is in that company and what she’s experiencing is very strange. They’re not talking about the fact that they have cast a couple of people from culturally diverse backgrounds – Asian backgrounds, African backgrounds – they’re just going yep, we’re all in this company, this is grand.

“Dudes, it’s like putting a band-aid on a brain tumour. You’ve not been inclusive, or allowed in people of colour for the entire time you’ve been a company, and now you think it’s all mended. These people are going to experience shit from the press, they’re going to experience shit from patrons, and they’re going to have to deal with the fact that the only other people of colour in the theatre are changing the bin-liners.”

Being political isn’t fashionable, and people tend to get antsy when the issue of race comes up. “When I go and see work being cast I’m looking at the whitest smallest actor being cast. That is the aesthetic. It’s mind boggling at times that people are trying to say it’s something else. That is the agenda. Directors like Julian Meyrick would get in trouble for ‘having an agenda’ by trying to cast diversely or to cast indigenous artists. Why isn’t anybody getting in trouble for always casting white people?”

What affected me most about Who’s That Chik? was the ironic/tragic element of Bowers’ ‘big dreams’. As she points out during the piece, if she’d grown up in South Africa - her parents’ old home - she’d probably have never imagined she could make it as a theatrical performer. Overtly racist barriers don’t allow you to dream big – but is the situation better in Australia? Here, we can dream of achieving amazing things, and even a Blasian chick (“part black, part Asian, with a little Caucasian”) from North Dandenong can dream of appearing on stages and screens across the country.

The tragedy is that dreams don’t equal opportunities. There are plenty of the former, but the latter are in short supply. Nobody really talks about that disparity, since in a liberal Western democracy the only limits to what you can achieve are the ones you impose upon yourself. Dream big and anything is possible. Make it happen. Just do it. And ignore the fact that no matter how hard you try, someone in a boardroom or casting studio or funding panel meeting is deciding your fate for you.

“The night I did [Who’s That Chik?] in Sydney where a lot of those guys were there, the gatekeepers… it was tense. It’s hard having that kind of tension in a comedy show! People who can’t laugh at themselves… tricky. Those guys have almost got to see a show with a whole bunch of kids in the house so they can see the reflection and then they get it. As opposed to going ‘She’s telling me I’m racist and I’ve been holding up the structure that’s racist. That makes me feel shit; that makes me angry; who do you think you are?’”

Continued tomorrow.

Review: And the Little One Said...


Presented by the Candy Butchers.

I should have worn a pair of brown underpants to Jess Love’s solo show as I was fairly shitting myself for at least half of its duration. Here’s a list of things that I honestly believed could have caused physical injury to me during the piece:

- Several dozen six-inch nails

- Spring-propelled arrows

- Rollerskate wheels

- Hoops spinning so close to my head that I could feel the breeze they produced

- A skipping rope

That’s not in order of fear-level. The skipping rope was probably the one that kicked my arse so bad that I have to type this while standing up.

It probably goes without saying that I was in the front row. It might surprise you to know that this Capital Idea blog doesn’t come with any kind of workcover arrangement though so it’s not like I go to these things hoping for a railroad bolt through the cheek and a few sweet months of paid leave. My masochistic theatrical tendencies are pure of motive.

Love’s show is a killer (so far just figuratively, but I reckon it’s only a matter of time). She plays cute while pulling off lethal circus-inspired routines that seem like burlesque or sideshow acts before you realise the tricks involved. Most of them involve putting herself in great danger and somehow surviving; others are feats of dexterity that are jaw-dropping (cf. the skipping bit).

I’ve never seen the Candy Butchers, the group Love comes from and under whose name this show is appearing. I’ll certainly catch the next thing they do, if this in any indication. Love’s act is aligned with the loose movement in circus I’ve described earlier in regards to Skye Gellman’s work – I’m tempted to come up with a hip new term for it like Circuss or Circusp or Sur-cus or something but that would instantly make it lame. And besides, I don’t know if this is really a movement or anything; just that a whole bunch of people are suddenly doing things with the form that go beyond a ‘trend’ and instead make circus the most interesting art form in Melbourne at the moment. I was thinking that before I even knew it was true. Now I do.

The only time I have seen Love was in the last round of Moira Finucane’s Burlesque Hour, and she seems a bit like the twisted offspring of Finucane herself. My only reservation towards And the Little One Said... is the ironic smile Love frequently employs during the scary bits. Finucane does that perfectly; I think Love’s routines would work better with a different demeanour. Gellman, for instance, has a uniquely affectless presence during his circus acts – not deadpan Buster Keaton-style clowning, but a complete disappearance into the act itself. It’s all the more startling because circus usually comes with a frontispiece, an attitudinal disclaimer that makes physical wonder more palatable, less confronting (and by extension less sublime). Love still has that double-movement in her presentation, wearing the mask of the cheery carny as she does things that send shivers up your spine. This is just technical talk, though. I might be simply killing time while I wait for my undies to finish the rinse cycle.

Ends Saturday at the North Melb Town Hall.

Review: How to Be a Lady


A Good Laugh by Tess Waters

Tessa Waters is very, very, very unladylike. In this show at least; she’s probably perfectly presentable in normal life. But here she gives a hilariously uninhibited performance that’s in-your-face from the get go. She arrives on stage in a drunken fag-sucking mess and proceeds to do all the things you usually regret the morning after. Which she then does, too, and remorsefully hunts down an old How to Be a Lady etiquette tape in order to correct her ways. Her interpretations of these instructions are just as lewd, involving all kinds of surprises that shouldn’t be mentioned here (in order not to spoil the surprise, not because I’m suddenly getting all prudish myself).

Waters has a fantastic charisma that carries the piece, along with her complete willingness to let it all hang out. The show’s under the Circus category but it could just as easily be in Comedy or Performance, since the only circus element is all of the clowning. And she makes a great clown; it’s rare to see a young performer putting that form front and centre rather than just acting as the warm-up or filler act between other kinds of circus.

The show has some points that lag in pace and I think it could be tightened up structurally; it’s certainly got enough memorable sequences to have you wincing in abject recognition, though, and finding something to laugh at in the most vulgar of behaviour.

Ends Saturday at the Lithuanian Club.