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.

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