Saturday, October 30, 2010

Melbourne Festival - After the Fact

Euyrgh – I sure failed in the blogging race this Melbourne Festival, didn't I? That's ok. It's not a competitive thing and the teeny-tiny seasons of most festival events make reviews more of a postictal twitch than anything else. Still, while the two and a half weeks are still relatively fresh I guess it wouldn't be too hard to make a few late comments on this year's extraordinary reception.

Extraordinary in its lack of contentment, is what I mean; much of Melbourne's critical and artistic community seems to have characterised the 2010 festival with a collective shoulder shrug. 'Is that it?', the consensus. This is quite a cruel and unusual response, to me, for the simple reason that if art can be averaged out, this was probably the most creatively successful festival since Kristy Edmunds' first, at least. The vast majority of things I saw deserved high praise and were very successful in what they attempted to do – I'd count in this category Stifters Dinge, Intimacy, Life Without Me, Adapting for Distortion/Haptic, Mortality, Opening Night, Northern Trax, Vertical Road, Epi-Thet, Jack Charles V the Crown, An Anthology of Optimism, Nyah-Bunyar, Carnival of Mysteries and Seven Songs to Leave Behind, at least. Some people weren't fully satisfied with some entries on this list, but very few would complain that any weren't worthy of inclusion in the festival. And the only show I'd definitely send to the wreckers – Tomorrow, in a Year – earned a decent number of fans and quite a few devotees. What that work did - bring in hundreds upon hundreds of people who'd never stepped into the State Theatre (fact) and have many heaving with ecstasy - is much bigger than what that work was (kinda rubbish).

So what's the problem? It doesn't seem that anyone is finding great fault in the general mass of works included in this year's festival. What's left people feeling short-changed is what was perceived to be missing, and I want to address two of the common laments because I think they're very interesting and I have a few minutes to spare and am feeling not quite belligerent, a head-shake short of a contrarian, but would like to be the devil's avocado or whatever that thing is.

First complaint: nothing had the wow factor a festival needs. This was pretty much Robin Usher's summation of the festival, and it echoes what a lot of people have said to me. I agree, to a degree, but I think there's a dangerous edge to the statement. The looseness of definition behind a phrase like 'wow factor' conceals the fact that it often refers to a very specific kind of experience, and it's not one that a festival should require in order to be successful. I had approximate 'wow' moments in Intimacy, in Haptic, in Stifters, and others. But wow factor is about scale. It's about an event big enough, in every sense, to make witnesses feel as if they're sharing some common astonishment that will never be forgotten. Astonishment – wow – poses some serious aesthetic problems.

The roots of the word astonishment stem from words suggesting a violent 'striking' but also a turning to stone: something that freezes the mind's ability to respond, that stills the tongue that speaks back. That's why the only reaction can be the meaningless 'wow'. What else can you say? But is that the height of art? One that silences all objection? Of course, there have been Melbourne Festival events with a power-punch wow factor that certainly warranted inclusion – Theatre du Soleil's Le Dernier Caravanserail changed my understanding of what theatre is even capable of. But emphasising 'wow' diminishes the achievement of works that aim for another kind of encounter.

I don't know that the Melbourne Festival needs an event that seems to stop the city in its tracks, because in a way that's not possible. When people refer to wow factor shows of the past, they're operas with overwhelming sets or plays with a multi-million dollar budget. That's fine. I love that stuff. But why is that the pinnacle of a festival's achievements? Take the recent Hayloft/Malthouse Thyestes – if it had appeared in the Melb Fest, it would have been received with the same raves it drew from Fringe audiences. There's a show with wow written all over it. But in the intimate confines of the Tower, it's not one of Mr Usher's 'wow factor' shows at all. It can't be. It's of a completely different order. The kind of event supposedly missing from this year's festival isn't one that you engage with in a small theatre, or your average gallery, or on a screen somewhere. It's one that you share en masse, and the strangers with which you share it confirm that something has just taken place worthy of astonishment (hence the spare critical comment given to Northern Trax, easily the 'biggest' show of the festival but lacking the aura of heritage claimed by works such as Tomorrow, in a Year).

Second complaint: there was nowhere to share the experience. This kind of boils down to 'there was no good bar'. Which is true. Seventh Heaven invoked the same pitiful wince you'd get watching a mosquito on a mummy. There was no venue which acted as a locus for conversation, debate, criticism, snarky comments, unqualified praise, drunken overstatement or quiet observation of the above. Except there was. This year's festival saw an unprecedented level of online activity. Every day there were tweets and facebook comments of a number that made it seem as if something was going on, and people were desperate to talk about it. Perhaps this volume was partly due to the fact that there was no real-life space in which people could spend all day saying the same stuff to actual, meaty humans. But it was there.

What seems to unite both of these complaints is a larger question not about what a festival is, but what a festival does. Or, rather, how the two can't be meaningfully distinguished. It's sort of the same with reviews and commentary - what a review says is just a subset of what it does, and even the most descriptive and non-analytic of responses, even a 140 character tweet, can do much more than you'd expect. So while I disagree with some of the more basic forms the above complaints have taken - not enough wow, not a great bar - they speak to something more fundamental that needs desperate address.

Should the Melbourne Festival galvanise a broad public into a molten, fused mass? Should it offer platforms in which we can each take a turn speaking our mind, if we wish to do so? Should it offer a panoply of encounters that don't add up to more than their own sum, don't (necessarily) have anything in common or any hierarchy of wow-ness? Dunno.

But thanks for asking, everybody.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Meeting Edward Albee

Edward Albee is appearing as part of the MTC's 2010 Sumner Lecture tomorrow at 3pm. Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days with him in Sydney and wrote the following as a result. The piece first appeared in The Sunday Age.

 Image copyright - it's the one that best captures the Albee I met.

“Any play that doesn't hurt you in some way has something wrong with it.” - Edward Albee

THE SCENE: Afternoon. An esteemed Australian actor's home in Bondi, Sydney. A small, diverse group of artists and professionals are scattered around a large table; outside a tropical storm rages. Front, a journalist, JOHN BAILEY, sits with 83-year-old American playwright EDWARD ALBEE. The younger man has just called Albee's cat a c-nt.

ALBEE (squinting askance): What did you say?

BAILEY (less confidently): I... you have a cat named C-nt?

ALBEE: I'm going deaf. Say that again.

BAILEY: (loudly) Your cat is named C-nt.


ALBEE: I had a cat named Cunegonde, many years ago. Perhaps... that's what you are referring to.

This wasn't how I'd planned things would unfold out during my first meeting with the man regularly described as the “greatest living playwright.” It's just that I'd heard that his cat was so named and after his surprisingly firm handshake reminded me of a recent wrist mauling I'd received from a feline, it sort of blurted out. And there I was, having just said – yelled, really – a word I'd normally never use, in a roomful of strangers.

Albee played me. The next morning I recall that “Cunegonde,” from Voltaire's Candide, was a pun on the French slang for female genitalia. As for his requests that I repeat the question more loudly: when he later pleads deaf to another member of our gathering, he turns and gives me a small grin. “Selectively deaf,” he says. 

I shouldn't be surprised if Albee set me up during our first meeting. I'm soon to learn that this is his method: constant quips, contrariness and, usually, that conspiratorial smile as punctuation. As he points out over lunch the following day, “I'm observing you right now.” By that point I'm well aware of it.

Albee has long had a reputation as fiercely belligerent. In the 1960s he was became known for his “barbed, poised and elegantly guarded public press style”; of his last play, Me, Myself and I, he tells me that “the intelligent people received it very well, the imbeciles very badly. There's lots of things that people don't like in it. Too bad.”

 Albee in 1962

He shot to attention with 1962's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an uncompromising vivisection of contemporary mores. The play's Pulitzer Prize was rescinded by the award's board, who found the play obscene. More recently, in Australia, his The Goat: or, Who is Sylvia? dramatised the sexual and emotional relationship between an architect and the titular bovid.

Albee says that mere shock has never been his intention. “Did I sit down and think 'I must now write a play about something so outrageous that it will make people reconsider all their values blah blah blah'? Of course not. No. I may have been aware while I was writing it that this may shake some people up, but that's fine. Bring it on.”

But the Edward Albee I meet the day after our Scene One is a distinct counterpoint. I'm sitting outside the Bondi Pavilion, where he's spending the next two weeks mentoring a hand-picked group of Australian playwrights. “Have you been sitting here all night?” he asks, shaking my hand again.

In the morning session he makes jokes, sometimes at his own expense, and appears anything but threatening. When we take lunch nearby, he opts for a tuna wrap and Pepsi – sugar-free, on account of diabetes, but he does decide to indulge in a blueberry muffin. Every time he sees a dog he becomes animated and rushes to pat it. 

He seems anything but a hellraiser out to milk the teat of notoriety; if that were the case, why spend so much time teaching younger playwrights? This is Albee's third visit to Australia under the auspices of Inscription, a Sydney-based company advocating the development of local scriptwriters; the trip has resulted in Inscription's new Albee Scholar program, which will provide one local writer a six-week residency at the playwright's Montauk artist's retreat in 2011.

The firebrand Albee is still in there, though. “The two most important phrases a playwright can learn,” he tells his charges on their first morning, “are 'No' and 'Go fuck yourself'.”

In one of Albee's earliest plays, the 12-minute “The Sandbox”, there appears the character of a grandma in her 80s. She is the only figure in the piece not obsessed with appearing proper; the wizened old imp showing up the foolishness of the inane and vainglorious. “The Sandbox” was dedicated to Albee's own grandmother: “She was very lively. I liked her a lot. I suppose in some ways I tried to emulate her and stay alive. Not close down. Be an outsider. It always helps to be an outsider.”

This sense of being on the outside has been a constant throughout Albee's life. His biological parents gave him up for adoption at birth, and he suspects that his mother never knew his father (though “obviously they must have known each other for a few hours.”). Under US laws of the time, adopting families were forbidden any knowledge of a child's original parentage – apart from two rules aimed at social segregation. Babies could only be brought into families of the same ethnic and religious background as those giving up the “little bundle of child.”

“How you would manage to have a faith at two weeks old I do not know,” he says. “What preposterous rules that kept so many kids from being adopted.”

From the outset he was a stranger to his new family. The Albees were a wealthy clan who owned a highly successful vaudeville company. They were also committed racists and possessed by outrageous notions of class: the Irish, for example, were only fit to work as servants. Edward spent most of his youth in boarding schools or with nannies, while the rest of the family was “busy being social, busy being rich.”

“I'm the only one left of the entire brood who survived,” he says. “Because I'm evil.”

Albee was told early on that he was adopted – another way his parents hoped to distance themselves from him – and was delighted to learn it. “'My god,'” he thought, “'I'm not like these people.' One of the virtues of being adopted is that you create your own identity. You're not subject to the blood of other people.”

In contrast – indeed in opposition – to his family, he developed a highly liberal political sense from a young age. His rebellious streak carried through his teens, resulting in numerous school expulsions. He was never terribly good at running away from home, though not for want of trying. At thirteen he tried to buy passage to London but was returned to the family home. Neither party was particularly pleased with the outcome, and his mother couldn't wait until he was old enough to be kicked out.

The moment he came of age, he legged it to New York's Greenwich Village, at the time a hotbed of contemporary art in every form. For some time he attempted to write poetry (“we all begin by writing poetry, don't we?”), even confronting W. H. Auden on his doorstep with a bundle of his verse. “We got over a very difficult problem at the very beginning, because he wanted to get me to bed,” says Albee. “I didn't. But he was very gracious about that and we stayed friends until he died.”

He worked odd jobs, including a long stint with telegram company Western Union. This often saw him delivering death notices which required signatures from their recipients, and the real people he met as a result later came to populate his early plays. To this day, Albee takes the subway whenever he can, since it allows him to observe the actual characters he writes. “One day I'm going to get hit by someone,” he says. “'Why you staring at me?' 'Because you're so fucking fascinating!'”

Albee denies that he has ever written himself into his work: “I don't put myself in my plays. How can I be objective about me?” But his childhood has been replayed throughout his career – the family so excoriatingly satirised in “The Sandbox” reappeared in a longer play soon after (“The American Dream”). His mother was the focus on his acclaimed Three Tall Women in 1990, and was reconfigured once more in Me, Myself and I.

The way Albee recounts his own life is equally rife with repetition and variation. Some anecdotes, even particular ways of phrasing them, recur in different interviews. The two apocryphal novels he wrote as a kid (“the worst two novels that any American teenager could have written”) he now describes as 1500 and 3000 pages long. In 1966, the same works were 700 and “a couple hundred” pages.

Is it possible that the “Edward Albee” in the public eye is not just the author but the result of his writing? A fiction that has been built up over five decades of revision? Or even a ruse? Those dogs he appears so humanly fond of – before we'd even spoken, he had seen me patting a pooch that had appeared on the scene of our first encounter.

Contradiction has perhaps been the one constant in this life – challenging his parents, his critics, himself. The echoes that connect the rebellious child, the enfant terrible of theatre and the still-fighting Albee of today are a challenge to time as much as anything else. At 30 he was writing of 80-year-olds; now, he says, “half the time I still think I'm about 15. 80 is a fact. It's not an attitude. Whatever age you are, you're a different age really.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: Us


By Grit Theatre

It's always the same – just as the Fringe hits the home stretch some new horse comes flying out of nowhere to tear up the turf. This is that show, for me. Totally unexpected, completely irresistible. I loved it.

It's billed as an exploration of what it means to be in your early twenties but – WAIT, COME BACK! I know, I know, that makes it sound like another student production of He Died with a Felafel in his Hand, but it's nothing of the sort. It's a play, but only if you try really really hard to make it one. Rather, it's better understood through the logic of music (or perhaps even visual art). The 'story' is less essential than the rhythm, the harmonies and the sudden key changes that occur, or the relationships between elements and their gestalt production of a whole – its effects arise quite independently of any notion of character or drama or any o' that guff.

There's a lot of split focus and overlapping dialogue which is as skilfully deployed as anything I can recall seeing – we're guided from conversation to conversation imperceptibly, through minute changes in the volume of speakers' voices or subtle visual cues that grab our attention. At the same time, there's a sense of real anarchy and spontaneity throughout, and a great deal of humour.

Humour's not really the word though – it's closer to joy, and that's the lifeblood of this production. The closest relative I can think of is Ontreorend Goed's Once and For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen; where that show drove home the incredible richness of teenage life, Us does a similar thing to twentysomething-dom. It also bears close relations to Ranters Theatre in the casual, conversational style that conceals the sophistication undergirding all. There are a few 'theatrical' moments that come from nowhere, and they knocked me through the back wall.

It can be relatively easy to wow audiences with dark themes and watered-down versions of tragedy, but it's rare that a work can make magic out of sheer, unconditional celebration. This is ecstatic theatre and I would see it again and again and again.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Review: These Are The Isolate


By Mutation Theatre.

See this show and snap to it.

Another entry from Mutation Theatre, it's been my biggest surprise of the festival so far. Hunting around, it turns out that every review or mention of this piece has been hugely encouraging, but last night I was one of only seven or eight people in attendance and it deserves much better than that. It really is one helluva piece of work.

I won't write much about it now since much of what makes it worth seeing is the experience of discovering it for yourself. The writing is outstanding, with a kind of Schroedinger's Cat quality – you know the experiment where a cat in a box is both alive and dead at the same time until the moment the box is opened and uncertainty is reduced to reality? There are elements of uncertainty at play here, but unlike your standard narrative mystery which involves the withholding of vital facts, this one presents incommensurate realities simultaneously so the mind is forced to switch back and forth between possibilities that can't be reconciled. It's a bit like those pictures that are both a lamp and a pair of faces but the brain can't register both at once.

The performances initially came across as a bit mannered and over-blown but grew on me steadily – I'd say they're heightened rather than exaggerated. Certainly there are moments that really illustrate how the two actors have gone into great detail in their preparation, and it's a rare sight. Make this one a priority, folks. We'll talk more after.



By Paul Moder and Natalia Ristovska. Until October 7.

It must take a special kind of bravery to attempt to tackle the worst of humanity's capacity for evil through the medium of strip-tease, but that's what this show tries to do. There's a scene in which an audience member is invited to participate in a lap-dance, and when he does so is met by a women playing a little girl who is ordered to undress for him. She's clearly unwilling and finding the experience traumatic. Much of the audience has been in a similar state for an hour or so by now. After all, we've had plenty of rape, shootings and guttings already, so we're repressing in advance the paedophilic imagery we're about to be offered. Thankfully on the night I attended the poor soul plucked from the crowd had given up being offended at this point, and issued a jovial “righto – arms up!” to his victim.

And how else are we to respond when the top-hatted and waist-coated M.C. solemnly instructs us to “lift your eyes from the girl in budding form, and free that which you can never possess...” With laughter, mostly.

Atrocity attempts to resuscitate the Grand Guignol, the Parisian theatre of graphic horror that aimed to aimed to shock the living daylights out of punters. And there's plenty to shock here, though it's a shocking show in several senses. Some sequences are genuinely accomplished, such as one involving a woman appearing to tear off her own flesh. Others, not so much.

I really didn't need to be subjected to real photos of the dismembered and brutalised victim of the infamous Black Dahlia case – if the aim of this production is to have it's audience look away in disgust, mission accomplished. But these real atrocities were matched by moments of almost deliberately awful hilarity: a woman in Muslim headscarf and dress does a strip-tease dance before an American soldier shoots her and bludgeons her to death. We ponder this, and the choices that led us here (to be sitting in this audience, specifically).

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this production is its seriousness. Why are we supposed to feel complicit in these scenes of torture and terror? Why is this more important than the 'horrors' reproduced at your average theatre restaurant? Why is the M.C. singing a low-rent imitation of a 90s Nine Inch Nails song?

It's entirely possible that the grim, po-faced delivery of everything here is a put-on and that we're supposed to laugh. In a way this would be a pity, because the three female performers all show considerable talent despite the miseries they're asked to endure.

But in the end this is nasty, wrong-headed stuff inconsiderate of its audience and unclear of its intentions. I loved it for this and laughed uncontrollably, and I'm sure there's an audience looking for just that.

Review: Madeleine Tucker's Unfashionable Windcheater Factory


By Madeleine Tucker. Season ended.

I went along to this one after its producer mentioned that I had seen two of Madeleine Tucker's previous shows and had liked them. It turned out that I had and I had. I'm glad I went to this because I liked it too.

The earlier shows featured Madeleine Tucker as one third of the trio A Lot of Bread, who made hyper-whimsical comedies with cardboard sets and naff props and often lollies – almost unbearably twee but in a way I found very enjoyable. I thought this might be Madeleine Tucker's solo show but it turns out to that she just enlisted three different people to work with and has inexplicably put her name in the title. I don't know what happened to the rest of A Lot of Bread. Maybe they maintained a refusal to include Madeleine Tucker's name in the show titles and she wasn't having any of it.

See, what I love here is that anybody who doesn't know Madeleine Tucker isn't going to see the show just because her name is in the title, but it's in there anyway! And nothing else in the title actually appears in the show! And if you're offended by excessive use of exclamation marks, look out buster! This show is one big exclamation mark!

Madeleine Tucker plays Rodney the goblin. Rodney meets a fridge and a zucchini and a bunch of other characters. They do stuff and sometimes don't do other stuff. When Rodney goes to bed he cheers “Come on, sleep!” I laughed at that. Late in the show a very funny video is played based around the toy dinosaur paralympics. I laughed at that too. And the fridge's child (and child and child's child) were inspired, but obviously none of this is going to translate as particularly funny if you weren't at the show.

There's a particular genre of whimsical comedy that had an upsurge a few years ago, with comics like Josie Long at the forefront, but A Lot of Bread (and this show) seem to occupy a slightly different niche. It's a bit like a children's show turned up to a manic level – it occupies the same dayglo surreal-lite world and the performances are similarly exaggerated, even patronising of their audience, as if we're all a bit underdeveloped, but with no qualms introducing more adult jokes into the mix (and the bloody murder of a surgeon in this show was laugh-out-loud because of the surprising inventiveness of the way it was staged.)

Anyway, that's all! Good job, Madeleine Tucker!

Review: TPAN (the play about nothing)


By & All the King's Men. Until October 9.

This is an odd little show that's both ambitious and understated – ambitious in that it employs a cut-up, audience-participation method that means every show will be radically different, and understated in that the world it produces is just the very ordinary one of a couple of teenaged boys on a night on the town.

I suppose the title is a nod to Seinfeld, the show about nothing, but like Seinfeld that descriptor's a bit misleading. This isn't a show about nothing, just about nothing grand. It's honestly a world I've never seen recreated in a theatre before – I suppose I still haven't, since this was a long way from a 'theatre'. In a grimy, graffitoed room above a pub, the audience sat in the round wearing assigned costume items and clutching their props. We'd been issued a page of character instructions including commands as to how we were to respond at key plot points, but any fears that this would be an all-out bit of audience interaction were quickly allayed when the show began. It's a two-hander that occasionally calls on each audience member for a moment of involvement, simply to flesh out the other characters these dudes meet in their misadventures.

These included angry shopkeepers, petty drug dealers, bums and pot-heads and a range of dodgy mates. The audience-performers aren't required to be great actors or even particularly enthusiastic – the real actors are themselves so full of energy and so damn real in their roles that they carry the thing along briskly nonetheless. And it's to their huge credit that they manage to improvise so well, since other characters will come and go depending on the number of audience members on any given night. I only realised afterwards that entire sequences must have been omitted on the fly for this reason.

It's not something that deals with great themes but it's a surprisingly fun night that seems to have provoked similar reactions from other reviews I've read. And given that at least four of the six audience members were professional critics or writers on the night I attended, and there didn't seem an ounce of nervousness on the part of the performers, that's gotta be worth an extra tick.