Monday, September 27, 2010

Review: Thyestes


By The Hayloft Project/Malthouse Theatre. CUB Malthouse until October 9.

Everyone bangs on about the Greeks inventing democracy, but they also tried some other pretty nifty methods of governance too. After Thyestes and his brother Atreus kill their half-brother Chrysippus they end up taking the throne and decide to take turns being king. I don't know about you, but I reckon going swapsies on leading the country is an idea we never really gave a full go.

Thyestes decides he's really into the king thing and one day goes “nuh-uh, it's mine forever now dude” and steals Atreus' wife to boot. What a rotten skunk. Atreus eventually does some stuff that gets him back in power, but this is where the tale really gets nasty. Now that he's back in power and everything is pretty much restored to its proper equilibrium, you'd think the story would end with Atreus and Thyestes looking at the audience and giving one of those “whuddyagonnado?” shrugs. Instead, Atreus cooks Thyestes' little boys and makes him unwittingly eat them.

I'm pleased to report that I was offended by this production. There were a few points where I honestly found myself curling up and thinking “geez, that's a bit much, fellas.” Which helped me realise that I can't remember the last time I had such a reaction. It's probably partly because we've seen most things before and it's very difficult to really shock an audience with something genuinely new. Equally, admitting to being offended can seem like a failing, as prudish or conservative or na├»ve. We might call something offensive, but making the offence a quality of the thing at hand rather than a personal response distances us from our own involvement in the process.

Anyway, Thyestes is, for me, genuinely transgressive stuff. Not just in the sense that it traverses boundaries of taste, since that (again) is a pretty inconstant qualifier. Rather, it makes void those distinctions. I don't think this is a show that can be categorised as good or bad. That's its genius.

The terrible question that always haunts a critic and, I suppose, most members of an audience is: “Is this good or bad?” It makes as much sense to ask whether a work is good or evil. But it's a question that almost always asserts itself and I'd say the critic's job is to stifle that inner voice and remain constantly vigilant to its intrusions. There are other questions, lots of 'em, that are far more interesting.

And then there are works that strangle that voice for you. If someone offers you a free jet-pack, you don't ask what colour. Thyestes simply can't be understood as a good or bad production. It's brilliant and horrible and clever and brutish and pointless and necessary. There aren't that many words that don't, in some way, connote 'good' or 'bad' in the final account – but this production deserves most of them, from both sides of the fence. (And I've just noticed David Mence has had a similar reaction over at Theatre Notes).

I've found that violent abolition of quality judgements in some of the Black Lung's previous work – it's tempting to say that the contributions of a few Black Lung members to Thyestes have nudged it in the same direction but I think that would be to underestimate director Simon Stone's own accomplishments here. This isn't a Black Lung show at all – it's a Hayloft piece, with distinct connections to Stone's earlier work, which also suggests new directions he's interested in taking.

Enough of my squawking, though. Don't bother reading about this show. Just go see it.

Review: The Lounge Room Confabulators


So these two guys come into your living room and tell stories and sing songs and play with toys and stuff. That's the basic set-up here. It's also one of the most enjoyable works I've seen in ages.

It's greatest strength is in the writing, which maintains a literary complexity that's often lacking in theatre. It at first appears a series of short, unconnected stories, but quickly reveals itself as one long story told partially from countless different angles. The tale itself is a masterful mix of the gothic and the comic, developing a rich world based around the monstrous childhood of the two storytellers. Their skills as performers are wonderful, too, with just enough levity required to make the more brutal moments of the narrative almost touching.

I think the season's sold out, and given the conditions of its showing – you book them into your lounge room and invite your friends – that's not hard to believe. If you do get a chance to visit a performance, or if the season is extended, jump on it hard with both feet.

Review: Home?


By Jono Burns. North Melbourne Town Hall until October 1.

So far this Fringe the number of shows I've seen in which I've been given a piece of fruit to take home equals two. The number of shows I've seen with a title ending in a question mark also equals two. Home? makes both lists. But don't think that healthy-snack bribery or interrogative punctuation are the real selling points here – there's much more to this one.

It's a solo performance by Jono Burns (accompanied by two quite clever musicians). It's based around Burns' years in New York at The Actors Studio, but while theatre about theatre can be painfully self-indulgent this is more of a satirical look at the profession and the hopefuls it attracts.

Burns is a fantastic character actor – he takes on at least a dozen incarnations here and most are realised with great skill. The tale itself is full of hilarious moments, often no more than imitations of the people who populate New York. As a narrative it doesn't really amount to much more than a string of anecdotes; the insertion of some more tender mentions of his family and upbringing don't gel that well with the NY material. This doesn't detract much from the overall experience, however, and I'd love to see this reworked with a tighter editorial eye.

Review: Paradise?


By City of Voices. South Melbourne Commons. Season ended.

Any diet of theatre should include regular inclusions of community development shows, kids' theatre, high school plays, drama school presentations, stand-up nights, readings and other staples that remind you that not all theatre aspires to the same thing. They also keep you regular and make your hair more glossy.

Paradise? is firmly in the community camp – it's an ensemble work by South Melbourne's City of Voices, who don't seem to have any particular brief beyond making work that involves everyone who wants to be a part. The group features members with and without disabilities as well as spanning a broad range of age and ethnicity.

The piece itself began as audiences were ushered through an outdoor installation where the performers were stationed as witches and sprites and toys and clowns. Once seated inside a hall, these actors played out a series of scenes apparently inspired by Paradise Lost, though the narrative thread wasn't particularly obvious. In fact, I was never really sure why anything that occurred did so, but that's a minor quibble.

It wasn't an instant classic, though I only say that because I've seen a lot of similar community stuff that has embedded itself in my memory forever (in a good way). But I don't think that Paradise? was intended to be anything more than it was, so it's meaningless to compare it to what it wasn't.

Review: A Study in Scarlet (A Study Of)


By Robert Lloyd and Scott Gooding. Son of Loft, Lithuanian Club until October 1.

Robert Lloyd has been obsessed with Sherlock Holmes since he was a child; here he plays out the entire story that introduced Arthur Conan Doyle's character to the world while offering commentary asides and dipping into the reasons that the superhero detective made such an impression on the skinny kid growing up in Dubbo. These latter sequences are the most appealing aspect of the show, and I wished there was more of this material than we ended up getting. The performance of the story itself is well done but probably not enough to hang 90% of the actual show on. It's still a satisfying bit of storytelling, though, and certainly worth a cursory inspection.

Review: I Love That You Forgot


By Sarah Hillman-Stolz and Emma Fisher. At Yah Yah's. Season ended.

This is a very sweet and likeable show that left me totally stumped. I can't for the life of me work out what was common to all of the sequences it presented, which featured dance, storytelling, spoken word, projection, physical theatre and lots of other bits and pieces. Many were fine on their own terms, but there was no indication why any one thing was selected for inclusion over anything else that could have been. It was like a language without a grammar.

What I did get from the piece was that the two performers seem like very nice people who would be kind and generous friends. That's a pretty good thing to get from a show. But I'm not sure exactly what else I was supposed to take away from it (apart from a banana and a cupcake).

Review: The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum


By Peepshow Inc. Abbotsford Convent until October 2.

Peepshow Inc's previous production at the stunning Abbotsford Convent was a gorgeous spectacle of puppetry and live performance; this one doesn't meet the same high standard. The earlier work offered both a grander scale and a more affecting intimacy, whereas this one is often too literal in the way it conveys its melancholy story of the real history of the venue as a haven for girls who fell from grace (or at least respectability) in 19th century Melbourne. There are a handful of sublime images and original theatrical manoeuvres, but they don't quite add up to the moving experience that this might well be.