Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Postcard from Perth 59


WA Opera, Sweeney Todd




The tale of Sweeney Todd – the ‘demon barber of Fleet Street’ who slit the throats of his victims and then passed on their corpses to Mrs Lovett, who made them into meat pies – was first published in a Victorian serialized novel or ‘penny dreadful’ called ‘The String of Pearls’, and almost immediately turned into a stage melodrama. It rapidly became the stuff of urban legend; subsequent versions included a 1936 silent horror film (starring the deliciously named Tod Slaughter) and various stage adaptations of the original story, including a 1973 play by Christopher Bond (whose subsequent adaptations include The Beggar’s OperaA Tale of Two Cities and Dracula), which in turn provided the source for Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical. Bond’s play elevated the tawdry plot into a revenge tragedy by providing Sweeney with a motive (or at least a psychopathological explanation) for his crimes: his wrongful conviction and transportation to Australia at the hands of the unscrupulous Judge Turpin, who rapes Sweeney’s wife (who in turn goes mad) and adopts his daughter for his future perverse sexual enjoyment. 

Sondheim seized on Bond’s play as the basis for his most complex work of musical theatre – or some would say opera, depending on the theatrical context and musical forces employed. The composer himself called it a ‘musical thriller’ or ‘black operetta’, and insisted that it was a psychological study in ‘obsession’. Hal Prince’s original Broadway production, however, emphasised the story’s origins in the Industrial Revolution by setting it on a stage dominated by a huge reconstructed iron foundry (a staging which has some parallels with the Boulez/Chereau interpretation of Wagner’s Ring a few years earlier). As such, Prince drew attention to the social-historical dimensions of the work, which Sondheim himself denied, but are arguably latent in the libretto and score: the former invokes a strong sense of social injustice, while the latter includes factory whistles as well as pounding rhythms and whirling ostinatithat recall the primitivism of early Stravinsky and Bartok, the minimalism of John Adams and the film scores of Bernard Hermann.

The WA Opera remount of Stuart Maunder’s production (originally staged by Victorian Opera in 2015) follows in the footsteps of the Broadway original, with Roger Kirk’s set design featuring a looming 19thCentury industrial cityscape of painted brick. A movable two-storey structure places Lovett’s cramped pie-shop beneath Sweeney’s upstairs barbershop; a trap-door beneath the barber’s chair opens onto a central chute like a gullet down which his victims plunge to the bakehouse in the basement. To one side of the stage another towering structure represents Judge Turpin’s house, where Sweeney’s daughter Joanna appears trapped on the balcony like a fairytale princess. The Victorian Gothic atmosphere extends to the whole stage when the architecture is cleared away to make room for the picaresque Soho street-scenes, Fogg’s lunatic asylum, or the subterranean bakehouse with its meat-grinder and fiery oven. All of this is spectacularly lit by Philip Lethlean, with green fingers of light spreading out through the haze beyond the proscenium like a Hammer horror film come to life, especially in the venerable Edwardian splendour of His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth. 

All of this is given added punch by the considerable forces of the WA Symphony Orchestra, the WA Opera Chorus and the principle singers, including both operatic and more music-theatre-trained voices. Antoinette Halloran in particular steals the show by making the leap from opera to musical theatre, with an interpretation of Mrs Lovett that manages to be grotesque, witty, sentimental and tragic in her greed, lust, intelligence and ultimately doomed love for Sweeney; baritone James Clayton is both fearsome and pitiable as an almost Scarpia-like Judge Turpin; and recent WAAPA Music Theatre graduate Joshua Reckless is initially touching and later spooky as Mrs Lovett’s devoted but eventually deranged apprentice Tobias. 

The big let-down for me was Ben Mingay in the leading role. Sweeney is a complex character, and needs to be both sympathetic and genuinely terrifying. Mingay simply didn’t have the acting chops to embody this, and his mellifluous voice remained safely in the realm of Romantic opera, without ever taking on the raw edge of sheer madness required by the role. To be sure, in this respect it has something in common with certain operatic roles (Wozzeck, Peter Grimes); and certain opera singers who are also actors could certainly go there (James Clayton for one); but for my money, in all its cheap, messy, sensational penny-dreadful glory Sweeney Todd still belongs in the realm of musical theatre rather than opera; and in the end, there was something a little too neat and tidy about this production, for all its undoubted musical and dramatic pleasures.

*

Sweeney Todd played at His Majesty’s in Perth on the 13th, 16th, 18thand 20thof July. 


Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Postcard from Perth 58


Feet First Collective, S-27, Fremantle Arts Centre




S-27 (or Security Prison 27) was a former secondary school in Phnom Penh that was used by the Khmer Rouge to imprison, interrogate, torture and execute those who were deemed to be enemies of the regime. From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 20,000 people were incarcerated there, of whom almost all were killed. Forced confessions and denunciations were used to arrest others – including family members and friends – who were in turn tortured and killed, in a vicious cycle. The prisoners were photographed on arrival and forced to give an account of their lives up to the time of their arrest, before being stripped of their clothes and belongings and sent to their cells to await interrogation. Many of the prison guards were teenagers or in their early twenties – including children taken from prisoner families – and lived in terror of breaking the rules and being arrested, interrogated and killed themselves.  

British playwright Sarah Grochala’s play S-27 was first produced at the Finsborough Theatre in London in 2009. Based on prison records and interviews, the play is set in an abstract fictional world that makes no direct references to Cambodia (there are no geographical markers, and the characters all have English names) but that clearly draws on the unique circumstances of that particular hell. 

The action takes place in a room where prisoners are photographed and interrogated on arrival before being sent through a doorway – implicitly to their deaths. The central character, May [in a tight-lipped performance from Gabriella Munro], is a young female prison photographer, and the play consists of a series of physically as well as emotionally torturous interactions between May and a procession of newly arrived prisoners, including a former policeman from her village [Samuel Addison], a woman with a newborn baby [Caitlin Griffiths], and a former lover [a touchingly vulnerable performance from Samuel Ireland] – as well as her equally immature but more emotionally hardened colleague, June [Trinity Emery Rowe]. 

S-27 is a relentless study in betrayal and the cost of survival. The writing is sharply etched and rigorous, and the action and emotions heightened and taut. It reminded me of Brecht’s The Measures Taken, which has been much misunderstood as an apologia for revolutionary violence and rigidly enforced party discipline, whereas Brecht himself pointed out that it was actually a story about someone who participates in their own self-extermination. As one of the most famous passages in that play clearly states:

It is a terrible thing to kill.
But not only others would we kill,
But ourselves too if need be,
Since only force can alter this
Murderous world, as
Every living creature knows.

In a sense May too – and even more so her emotionally damaged colleague June – are engaged in an act of self-murder (the German word for suicide, Selbstmord, seems appropriate here) regarding their souls if not their bodies (though physical extinction is also their likely ultimate fate).

This production of the play by Feet First Collective is directed by Teresa Izzard and staged at Fremantle Arts Centre – a 19thcentury Gothic structure of local limestone built using convict labour, which was formerly used as a psychiatric hospital or ‘asylum for the criminally insane’ and later as housing for homeless women and ‘delinquent girls’. As such it has a somewhat sinister and even haunted ambience, especially at night. 

The performance began in ‘immersive’ mode, with the audience aggressively rounded up and herded inside one of the buildings by the cast, who were dressed as black-clad guards and armed with truncheons. We were told to form two lines, and our valuables confiscated, before each being given a lanyard with a number and marched upstairs. Those of us who had chosen at the box office to wear a wrist-band indicating that we were willing to be manhandled by the performers were singled out for special abuse and mistreatment. Meanwhile some of the ‘guards’ were dragged off by others to be interrogated for failing to do their duty, and angry shouts and cries of terror were heard echoing through the building.

I found this the weakest part of the performance. It felt somewhat unconvincing (and even a little tasteless) to be treated like prisoners, especially while holding plastic glasses of wine in our hands; and the actions and demeanour of the ‘guards’ were (perhaps inevitably) a little half-hearted. Things improved once we were seated in traverse in an upstairs room, and the play was performed in a more or less traditional format, apart from stylised ‘post-modern’ movement sequences between each ‘scene’, which I felt were a little affected, especially in the context of such a brutal and uncompromising play. I also felt that the emotional and technical demands of the play and the production were somewhat beyond the reach of a young and relatively inexperienced cast. Despite some highly atmospheric original music by Rachael Dease and subtle lighting by Andrew Portwine, the production as a whole seemed to fall slightly uneasily between student and professional standards of expectation, so that I wasn’t quite sure what genre of performance I was watching, or how to engage with it. Consequently the play itself didn’t hold me as powerfully as I felt it would in more confident hands.

In sum: S-27 is a gripping and complex play about a harrowing period in history, which has important things to say about dehumanisation that are more relevant than ever today, when systems of surveillance and punishment are on the rise even in so-called democracies like our own. As such, this is a worthwhile production, even though some of the artistic choices – in particular the gesture towards ‘immersive’ staging – didn’t entirely come off.

*

S-27 is at Fremantle Arts Centre until Sunday July 21. 


Friday, 19 April 2019

Postcard from Dance Massive


Luke George and Collaborators, Public Actions
Atlanta Eke, The Tennis Piece
Stephanie Lake, The Skeleton Tree
Marrugeku, Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry
Joel Bray, Biladurang

Russell Dumas, Cultural Residues 2020


*

How can dance intervene in the world? And how is it subject to the world – not only physically but also economically and politically?

This year marked the sixth edition of Dance Massive, a biennial festival of Australian contemporary dance held in Melbourne (sometimes called the nation’s dance capital). Hosted by Arts House (whose venues include North Melbourne Town Hall and the Meat Market just down the road) in partnership with Melbourne’s venerable Dancehouse and Malthouse Theatre – as well as at alternative venues like Collingwood Town Hall and the Abbotsford Convent – this year’s festival embraced thirty productions from around Australia as well as a free public program of masterclasses, talks and showcases. Crucially the festival is also a market for domestic and international producers, and the pressure of this on some of the work and artists was palpable.

The dominant themes in the work – and brochures, programs and online marketing – were democracy, identity, technology and the nature of dance itself. More interesting to me however (especially in the context of dance) than these verbally articulated themes were the physically articulated performance practices they inspired – and beyond these, the economic and institutional practices that support or undermine them, including those of arts organisations, the arts market and the festival itself. In particular the festival (my third in less than two months, after Perth and Adelaide) raised questions for me about how art is marketed and described (including in reviews like this one) in ways that don’t helpfully serve or even accurately ‘frame’ the work. This is especially the case when art is talked about in terms of ‘content’ instead of artists, materials, processes and what might generally be called ‘form’.

*


Luke George has been making Public Actions with a diverse group of seven other performers and creatives (Nick Roux, Brooke Powers, Latai Taumoepeau, Leah Landau, Melanie Lane, Russell Walsh and Timothy Harvey) for the past couple of years. The work is described in the program as being in three ‘Parts’: Part 1 (‘Public Action’) and Part 2 (‘Group Action’) are ‘performative happenings’ that occur in the theatre at North Melbourne Town Hall; Part 3 (‘A Call to Actions’) is an exhibition in an adjacent room at the town hall archiving a series of ‘happenings in public spaces enacted by public participants’. The exhibition contains archival material including a looped video screening and a tree trunk; the video shows some of the artists and members of the public carrying the tree truck and negotiating their way around the Abbotsford Convent with their eyes closed. 

The term ‘happening’ invokes a performance art lineage that goes back to New York in the late 50s and 60s, and in particular the work of Allan Kaprow (who was inspired by the musical ‘happenings’ of John Cage). Similarly the term ‘action’ evokes the ‘action-painting’ of Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, especially as championed by critic Harold Rosenberg, who argued that the canvas was ‘an arena on which to act’ – in other words, a kind of stage. Crucially, Rosenberg shifted the focus away from the finished work as a self-contained object or product and onto the ‘action’ or process of making it. Thus the painting (or production) became a kind of ‘residue’ (which interestingly is also the term strategically chosen by Russell Dumas to describe his work in the festival, discussed below). 

In fact one could argue that the first two ‘parts’ of Public Actions actually took place prior to both performance and exhibition – namely, the ‘happenings’ at the Abbotsford Convent and the ‘action’ of making the performance in the rehearsal room – while the third ‘part’ at the Town Hall attempted to synthesize or recreate this with an audience in the theatre and to archive it in the exhibition. As such the term ‘happening’ might well describe what took place at the Convent; and ‘action’ in the sense of ‘action-painting’ might even describe what happened in the rehearsal room; the question is whether or how these terms apply to what ‘happened’ in the performance. The ‘performative happenings’ of Public Actions took place with a paying audience in a professional theatre, within a set time-limit and according to a prescribed sequence of events which might even be called a kind of ‘plot’ (or ‘performance score’). They also took place within the institutional context of Dance Massive, a market in which the ‘product’ (as opposed to the process of its making) is being put on display as a commodity for sale to domestic and overseas producers. These considerations arguably mitigated against the performance-component of Public Actions being a ‘happening’ at least as theorized and practised by Kaprow – let alone a work of ‘action-theatre’ (which to be fair it doesn't claim to be). More seriously, they also had implications for the dramaturgy of the performance.

The brochure and program also use terms like ‘taking action’, ‘group action’ and ‘mobilization’ in a political sense, asking ‘what it would take’ to ‘mobilize a group of people’ – presumably the audience, but possibly also the cast – ‘in this theatre, this town hall’. A theatre however is not a town hall, even when it’s inside one (or a former one); and an audience or a cast is not just ‘a group of people’. Audience participation is not the same thing as ‘rallying the audience as mobilized citizens’; and even when the cast marches around the theatre, it’s not the same thing as marching in the street (let alone when the marching is being done by ‘mobilized citizens’ or troops). One again, this theatrical context has implications for the claims being made by the language used to describe the work, as well for the dramaturgy of the performance.

Finally, phrases like ‘taking action’ and ‘group action’ also have ideological associations. These too are evoked by the language of the brochure and program, which claims that the work has been ‘provoked by the debilitating culture of individualism today’ and that it ‘rallies the audience as mobilized citizens…to reconsider the question of art as a force for social cohesion’. Presumably the intention is progressive and democratic, but phrases like ‘social cohesion’ and ‘the debilitating culture of individualism today’ also suggest reactionary and even fascist ‘actions’, ‘forces’ or ‘movements’ like Action Française or Nazi Aktionen against the Jews. The question of a group-action’s progressive or reactionary intentions or consequences depends on the group, as well as on what we mean by ‘action’. Is the group open or closed? Democratic or autocratic? Are its actions violent or non-violent? And are its communications reciprocal and transparent or one-way and distorted by relations of power? As Weber argued, social action is reflexive because it takes into account the actions and reactions of others. In a theatrical context: it’s not only the artist’s understanding of their work that matters, but also the audience’s understanding and reactions, and the feedback between the two that takes place in performance (as well as in workshops, rehearsals, showings and critical dialogue). 

All this is relevant to my experience of what ‘happened’ on the night I saw the show.

*

‘Part 1: Public Action’ began with the audience on movable chairs on a tiered seating block, facing an empty floor with a large projection screen at the back that showed what appeared at first glance to be a mirror-image of ourselves. Closer inspection revealed that it was actually a cleverly constructed collage of ‘strips’ of footage taken from previous audiences and ‘sutured’ together. As it happens I recognized some of the performers (who in some cases appear more than once in the image) sitting in various seats amongst the mirror- audience looking back at us; and as it happens I was also sitting next to a friend who had seen the show more than once, and his image also appeared more than once in various seats. 

I was totally enchanted by this, although others in the audience were still talking and generally behaving as if they were still waiting for the show to start, until a commotion began several rows behind me. My friend and I stood up and turned back to see what was going on. Someone in the middle of the audience appeared to be slowly sliding or falling out of their chair. As it happens (that phrase again!) I recognized them as one of the performers and surmised that this was part of the show, especially as they continued slowly sliding down the seating block. Other members of the audience seemed unsure; and their uncertainty was compounded when a member of the front-of-house staff entered and announced (somewhat bizarrely) that they would have to stop the show. By this time some of the audience members sitting near the performer had vacated their chairs and begun moving towards the aisles on either side of the auditorium, either to make room or simply to stand and watch. At this point, the usher came back in, announced that it was indeed part of the show and (even more bizarrely) asked us all to sit down again. Most of us however remained standing, especially as other performers were now emerging from the audience and sliding down the seating block, tumbling over the empty chairs ahead of them in a slow-motion avalanche of bodies and chairs that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa or Rodin’s Gates of Hell

Once again, I was fascinated by the image, but distracted by the confusion of the front-of-house staff and audience. As the prison warden says at the end of Cool Hand Luke, what we had here was a failure to communicate. I also found myself distracted by thoughts of health and safety, not to mention legal liability, especially when one of the performers caught his belt in a chair-leg, and an audience member reached out and began struggling to disentangle him. 

Meanwhile the human avalanche continued crawling across the floor towards the projection screen – which now showed its mirror-audience sitting in the brace position as if for a crash-landing – while we stood somewhat awkwardly around them. They began to raise the screen, which it became apparent was made of fabric, and revealed the rest of the vast Town Hall space. This ‘reveal’ inaugurated Part Two: ‘Group Action’.

Sound and video artist Nick Roux was positioned on the proscenium stage at the far end, with a sound desk and microphones positioned in front of several vertical sheets of metal and some kind of long wind instrument that looked like a Tibetan horn. We’d been offered earplugs at the box office before the show, and fortunately I’d accepted, as unpredictable bursts of deafening industrial noise ensued for the next ten to fifteen minutes. No one else seemed perturbed, but even with earplugs and both hands covering my ears I felt nauseous from the bass frequencies, and found myself struggling with the urge to either leave the space or cross the floor and unplug the sound system; once again, I found myself distracted by thoughts of legal liability in the event of long-term hearing damage. (Afterwards I was reassured that the sound-levels had been meticulously ‘tested’, to which my response was: ‘On whom?’)

Meanwhile the performers were now marching up and down around the space and auditorium like soldiers or robots, reinforcing the (presumably intentional) impression that this section was meant to be an example of ‘group action’ by a stronger group against a weaker one (in this case, the audience). On every level, I felt that the transition from Part 1 to Part 2 certainly performed what the brochure described as a ‘rupture’ in the theatre (if not the ear-drums). However it totally negated the proposition (also stated in the program) that social ‘displacement’, ‘relocation’ or even ‘terra-formation’ (literally, the transformation of a planet or moon to make it like Earth and therefore habitable -a rather dubious ecological metaphor for social change) might happen through ‘immense softness’ rather than violence and noise. As such I felt it had more in common with fascism than democracy. Again, perhaps this was intentional; but I found myself confused about the larger purpose or necessity of this, and increasingly troubled by the work’s method of implementation and ethics. 

Individual performers were now moving among the audience and issuing instructions. One ‘group’ of audience took their chairs into the space and formed a new ‘onstage audience’; then a performer approached me and others sitting nearby and asked us to do the same thing (though I had trouble hearing what she was saying over the noise). Other audience members were apparently following instructions in various ways, doing creative things with brooms and generally enjoying being part of the action, as people often do (for better or worse). Eventually two audience members approached my onstage group and instructed us to pile up our chairs and then lie down on the floor. I assumed that they were relaying further instructions from the performers, and obeyed, even though once again I found myself distracted by thoughts of safety and liability as we piled up our chairs somewhat precariously and then lay down beside them.

Afterwards I learned that the second round of instructions had simply been an invitation to enter the space and change anything we wanted to (or not); and that the two audience members who had approached us had simply taken this a step further by telling us what to do. (It’s too bad I missed out on the original invitation, as I would have unplugged the sound system.) When I learned this I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that once again (as with the ‘avalanche’ in Part 1) there had been a systemic distortion of communication, aided and abetted by a lack of transparency or reciprocity between the performers and the audience. In particular I was struck by the somewhat mystificatory and even dogmatic silence or lack of intervention from the performers when things ‘went wrong’ – or perhaps simply ‘went differently’. This seemed to me like a case of doggedly ‘sticking to the script’ and washing one’s hands of the consequences while encouraging the audience to improvise and take things into their own hands – unlike the verbally transparent and reciprocally guided ‘happenings’ at Abbotsford Convent, where both artists and members of the public had their eyes closed but remained in physical contact and were allowed to signal ‘Eyes open!’ when needed. This inconsistency seemed particularly distorting given the imbalance of power between performers and audience in a theatre (just as it would be for police to simply ‘let things happen’ when things ‘got out of hand’ at a protest on the streets). If it was meant to be an exercise in voluntarism or ‘direct democracy’ then it seemed as naïve, specious or even disingenuous as those concepts themselves (in fact both are typically manipulated by demagogues and often lead to violence); if a more ‘value-neutral’ demonstration of ‘how things happen’ then once again its purpose, execution and ethics seemed poorly thought through. In comparison with the original ‘happenings’ of Cage or Kaprow, or more straightforward immersive performances like The Nature of Why (reviewed in an earlier Postcard from Perth Festival), this felt like an needlessly complex and distorting hall of mirrors, and ultimately a game of power rather than a work of genuine collaboration. 

‘As it happened’ however this time I was happy enough to lie down (at a safe distance from the pile of chairs) and watch the rest of the performance pleasantly unravel around me. In fact I found it something of a relief to return to the more traditional (albeit immersive) role of contemplative audience member while the performers embarked on a final, very beautiful and indeed ‘immensely soft’ sequence of improvised individual interactions and ‘farewells’ in relation to the space. At last, I felt, a genuinely transparent and reciprocal (even if wordless) encounter between performers and audience took place. Such surely is the beginning of any collective action not based on force – and perhaps of any genuine democracy.*

*Since writing and posting this I’ve received a personal communication from a cast-member and friend to the effect that my review may inadvertently give the impression that Public Actions failed to take adequate precautions in terms of health and safety. This was not my intention; rather I was reporting on what I experienced as moments of perceived confusion (in the cases of the ‘avalanche’ in Part 1 and the relayed instructions about audience participation in Part 2) and oppressiveness (in the case of the sound levels), which on reflection I attributed (in the former two cases) to distorted communication and (in the latter) to a neglect of audience comfort, as well as (in both cases) an underlying confusion (which could be mine!) about the work’s intentions and execution. It’s true that as a performer and theatre-maker I’m highly sensitized to issues of health and safety in the theatre as my habitual workplace, as well as to issues of audience perception; and that personally I’m also highly sensitized to the issue of noise (which I regard as a neglected health and safety issue across all workplaces and in society generally); but I have no doubt that the project took adequate precautions and always had the performers’ and the audience’s health and safety in mind and at heart at all times. 

*


I found Public Actions deeply problematic; but this is also a tribute to the work’s complexity and fundamental integrity. Such complexity and integrity was sadly lacking in some of the other work I saw at Dance Massive, which consequently I wouldn’t describe as ‘problematic’ but simply as bad work.

Many shows failed to live up to or even resemble the claims made for them in the marketing blurbs.  They also failed in terms of their dramaturgy – and were in many cases choreographically disappointing as well. I felt I was seeing a lot of bad theatre or conceptual/performance art repackaged as contemporary dance simply because it involved dancers and was created by choreographers. The latter however were not necessarily directors, performance-makers or conceptual artists – and in some cases barely even choreographers, judging by the evidence. This misleading ‘packaging’ seemed largely driven by marketing, and one could sense local audiences, international presenters and social media slavering over sexy ideas, technology and bodies without seriously or honestly engaging with the work in front of them. Generally I was engaged by the craft of the performers; but in most cases I wished they had been put to better use.

The Tennis Piece by Atlanta Eke for example was described in the festival brochure as ‘an experimental choreographic performance and multimedia installation performed by four dancers, 400 tennis balls, four self-feeding tennis ball machines and a robotic lute’. The work claimed to be ‘a choreographic deconstruction of Renaissance dance...unleashing an explosive new process beyond human agency’ (presumably referring to the tennis ball machines) created by ‘one Australia’s most provocative choreographers with a radical approach to tackling the complex anxieties of our technologically laden world’ (possibly referring to the robotic lute). The show’s program went even further, proclaiming that the work ‘re-imagines the Tennis Court as a time-machine’ in which ‘Eke together with her dancers travel back to 20 June 1789 where the members of the French Third Estate congregated in the city of Versailles and took the Tennis Court Oath, a pivotal event in the French Revolution’. Presumably after this act of time-travel, ‘Eke contemplates the confines of “supreme cosmic intelligence” [presumably a reference to the Revolutionary Cult of the Supreme Being rather than Eke’s own cosmic intelligence] though a new choreographic modality that reorganises the known into the deeply unrecognisable’ (an accurate description of the marketing jargon if not of the actual show). ‘Dancing in the face of obsolescence against an irrational and intensifying flow of 400 tennis balls’, the program concluded in a supernova-like burst of enthusiasm, ‘The Tennis Piece becomes a container for positive feedback loops – ever-rapidly approaching an unthinkable limit that was [in a final pleonasmic flourish] forever and always already there.’

The work was performed in the ballroom at Collingwood Town Hall, an elegant Art Deco refurbishment of a typical late-19thCentury neoclassical shoebox-style auditorium with a wooden floor and proscenium stage at one end. The venue was ideal for concerts and dancing, so I felt we were off to a promising start. Tennis court markings were taped to the floor; the audience entered the brightly lit ballroom and sat downstairs in a single line along the walls or upstairs in the gallery. Four dancers (Atlanta Eke, Ivey Wawn, Annabelle Balharry and Ellen Davies) warmed up playing tennis, while their images were duplicated on a video screen above the stage, and the sound of the ball hitting the racket was echoed by deafening synthesized lute chords (generated by sound artist Daniel Jenatsch) which continued relentlessly for the next hour.

Sadly the warm-up was the most interesting part of the show. The tennis net was removed, and two of the dancers re-entered without expression and moved around the space taking it in turns to exchange short barrages of dance steps back and forth (just like playing tennis). Then another dancer entered, covered herself in a dark sheet, knelt and began intoning the Latin names of female body parts (which were also projected as text on the video screen) while a tennis ball machine began lobbing balls at her. This was followed by all four dancers performing an interminable series of what looked like Renaissance or possibly French Baroque court ballet dance steps with great precision but still no expression or significant variation in length, rhythm or dynamic. Finally the lights went down, ultraviolet lights came up and a barrage of tennis balls began flying through the air at the dancers, who smeared themselves with luminous paint and began rushing around, occasionally trying to catch the balls or hit them back.

Presumably this had something to do with the French Revolution, patriarchy, the female body, royal tennis and the origins of ballet as an instrument of political power in the court of Louis XIV. I wondered what difference it would have made if I hadn’t read the program. Possibly I would have been more interested – but in the end probably just as irritated. The sound and staging made it almost impossible to contemplate the movement and allowed no imaginative space for corporeal meaning to emerge; the choreography was inert and demonstrated no sense of visual or spatial intelligence; and the whole thing was illustrative.

I thought of the term ‘program music’. Perhaps The Tennis Piece could be described as ‘programmed dance’.

*


Little advance on this score was made by the admittedly more accomplished Skeleton Tree by Stephanie Lake at Malthouse. Lake, like Eke, is currently hot property on the contemporary dance market, and is described in the program as a ‘multi-award-winning choreographer’ who ‘draws inspiration from the punch and poeticism of funeral songs and dances for the dead to create a powerful new work about the primary human experience that language constantly fails to articulate: the ecstasy of grief’. 

As this blurb suggests, death and grieving were totally aestheticized and anything ‘primary’ completely avoided. Lake admitted in an interview in Dance Magazine during rehearsals six weeks before the show opened that she had no experience of death but was ‘planning to interview people once I get further into the process’. I’m not sure how things panned out on that score, but the work certainly showed no evidence of any primary research – or indeed of any direct emotional response or original thought. Instead, as with so much contemporary theatre and dance that is driven by technology and technique, images and sensations were all. The staging was certainly eye-and-ear-popping (or alternatively ‘caressing’, depending on the sensation required) and the choreography occasionally jaw-dropping, but there was an emotional and intellectual coldness and emptiness at the heart of this work that made it less ‘about’ death than dead itself.

After a preliminary ‘Final Bow’ by the dancers (to recorded applause), a sequence of thirteen so-called ‘meditations on death and loss’ ensued. This largely consisted of a series of clichéd images augmented by lighting and sound effects, and a ‘funeral playlist’ of songs created by sound designer Robin Fox and including tracks by Joan Baez, Nick Cave, J.S. Bach, grindcore metal band Agents of Abhorrence, techno ‘noisician’ Paula Temple and (most cringingly) Saint Saëns’ Dying Swan, along with tracks by Fox himself.

Opening with Baez singing ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ was I felt a mistake as nothing else in the show could (or would) match the sadness and beauty of her voice or that song. Playing it at the end might have worked – certainly better than the hackneyed Saint Saëns, which coupled with the deciduous gold-leaf worn in that final number had me wondering if the intention was to be naïve, sentimental, kitsch or just plain camp. In between there was the eclectic ‘playlist’, a lot of loud noises and flashing lights (expertly engineered by Fox and lighting designer Niklas Pajanti but essentially more about sensation than imagination or reflection), and a series of dances that exploited the beauty and dexterity of the performers (James O’Hara, Nicola Leahey and Marlo Benjamin) and a few dazzling choreographic moves by Lake – most memorably including a seething pre-human John Carpenter’s Thing-like collective body with twelve arms and legs, which was for me the most striking image in the show, while still remaining an essentially a derivative and sensationalized one.

The most problematic sequence for me involved Benjamin and O’Hara laying out and washing Leahey’s flesh-coloured-underwear-clad ‘corpse’. I found the image generic, aestheticized, inauthentic and (in the languorous movement, arrangement of limbs and choice of underwear) primly eroticised. I would have been less irritated if it had been entitled ‘Necrophilia’ instead of ‘Ritual’; alternatively they could have simply washed a naked body.

More generally, I couldn’t help feeling that Lake was trading on an aura of sexiness surrounding death and grieving, and that the whole show engaged in a kind of pornography of mourning – both in the element of voyeurism assumed on the part of the spectator, and in the simulated or absent emotion on the part of the performer in the role of an object offered to our gaze. The title Skeleton Tree is presumably taken from Nick Cave’s 2016 album of the same name, recorded just after his son’s death. Cave at least speaks from experience, has chosen to share his loss with his fans and been characteristically careful to remain the subject rather than the object of the album as well as the concerts and films – and has used these to probe deeply into his own psychology and spirituality. Lake’s work in contrast seemed to me derivative, exploitative and ultimately shallow.

*


Four of the works showcased in Dance Massive were by First Nations choreographers. I saw two: Marrugeku’s Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry and Joel Bray’s Biladurang. Both were much more substantial productions than The Tennis Piece or Skeleton Tree, even if they lacked the formal sophistication of Public Actions or Russell Dumas’s Cultural Residues 2020 (see below).

Marrugeku is an intercultural indigenous performance company based in Broome and Carriageworks in Sydney, and led by artistic co-directors Dalisa Pigram and Rachel Swaine. Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry is a new ‘trans-indigenous dance theatre work’ created in partnership with the Centre Culturel Tjibau in Nouméa, directed by Burkina Fassoan/Belgian associate artist Serge Aimé Coulibaly and co-choreographed by Coulibaly and Pigram, with dramaturgy by Swain. It features six dancer/co-creators (Anrita Hepi, Stanley Nalo, Krilin Nguyen, Yoan Ouchot, Dalisa Pigram and Miranda Wheen) of First Nation, immigrant and settler descent from New Caledonia and Australia. 

It’s a striking team, and perfectly poised to ask painful questions about colonization and post-colonialism in a comparative and collaborative spirit. The work is inspired by the 2018 referendum in New Caledonia on independence from France, as well as the 2017 Statement from the Heart by the First Nations Convention at Uluru, which made recommendations on recognition, treaty and an indigenous ‘voice to parliament’ in Australia. The Statement from the Heart was rejected by the Australian Government; in the case of New Caledonia, a narrow majority (56%) voted to remain a French colony.

Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry is thus a work born of collaboration but also frustration and even anguish (as the title suggests), and its form and content are hard-edged and unrelenting. This may have been intended to reflect seemingly unchanging colonial and post-colonial realities, but the aesthetic made me switch off from the work and close my eyes and ears to its relentless message. Nicolas Molé’s set and video installation – including an abstract geometrical backdrop that looked like an 80s space ship, and a giant iPad-shaped screen displaying endlessly looped text and footage about the New Caledonian referendum and the Uluru Statement from the Heart interspersed with a screen-saver of digitized leaves – was ugly and distracting. Nick Wales and Bree Van Reyk’s electronic score was similarly monotonous, relieved only by Papuan ‘future soul’ singer-songwriter Ngaiire’s haunting vocal tracks, which evoked a sense of possibility that seemed otherwise lacking in the work. The program refers to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in relation to decolonisation and its ‘states of inertia and reoccurring cycles of waiting’; but Beckett’s play is leavened with a sense of humour and indeed playfulness (if not necessarily hope) that was sadly absent from Le Dernier Appel

The choreography ranged from pacing up and down or standing and staring into space (as if ‘waiting’) to semi-internalised spasmodic twitching, which eventually blossomed into frenzied outbursts of traditional and contemporary dance and movement. These revealed a little more individuality and complexity in terms of personality and movement-language, including some beat-driven break-dancing from Noumean Stanley Nalo, wild martial-arts-inspired leaping and spinning from Noumea-based Vietnamese Krilin Nguyen, intense traditional/contemporary fusion from Kanak/Indonesian New Caledonian Yoan Ouchot, and the more subtle and mature presence of Yaruwu/Bardi woman Dalisa Pigram. However there was very little contact between the dancers, who seemed emotionally trapped in their own worlds, and consequently their internal stories didn’t translate beyond the footlights. This was frustrating, as it seemed as if intercultural collaboration and interpersonal communication must hold some kind of promise for the future, but it was not visible onstage (although it was audible in Ngairre’s music).

I wanted to love this work and be moved by it, but I felt that it was dramaturgically inert and that its rhetoric remained mired in a form of generic protest that seemed ultimately self-defeating.

*

Joel Bray’s Biladurang also grapples with questions of colonisation, trauma, struggle and identity, but it does so in a much more personal, complex, engaging and inclusive way. The psychologist Abraham Maslow theorised that ‘love and belonging’ constitute a cluster of interrelated human needs. Biladurangspeaks to us intimately of this, no matter who we are or where we come from. 

In terms of form, it’s an immersive and participatory one-man dance-theatre work performed in a hotel room for an audience of about 15 people. Originally commissioned for the Deadly Fringe program of Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2017 and performed at the Sofitel on Collins in the Melbourne CBD, it has since been remounted in hotel rooms in Darwin, Brisbane and Sydney. This was a return season at the Sofitel – on the 44thfloor, to be precise.

The immediate creative and personal ‘inspiration’ for the show comes from a time when Bray was living in hotel rooms while on tour in Europe after having lived and worked in Israel for ten years, broken up with his partner, lost his visa and found himself single and homeless. The deeper source-material for the show however goes back to his upbringing as a pale-skinned Aboriginal man from north west NSW coming out as gay while being raised by a white Pentecostal Christian foster-family in the country town of Orange and spending holidays with his Wiradjuri activist father. Beyond this lie two hundred years of colonisation and thousands of years of racism and homophobia. All this is symbolically expressed in the dreaming story of the biladurang, or platypus, who was born of the forbidden union between duck and water rat and banished into exile upriver in south-eastern Australia, where it lives (and struggles to survive, depending on the environmental health of the river) to this day.

All of this – and more – was revealed in the course of the show. We were ushered up to the 44thfloor of the Sofitel by a host (Sofii McKenzie) who told us that ‘Joel’ was a bit self-involved and liked having his photo taken. She then knocked on the door and a naked and flustered Joel opened it and asked us to wait. He reappeared a few moments later in a white hotel bathrobe (and white undies) and let us in, handing out matching bathrobes for all of us, inviting us to make ourselves comfortable and pour ourselves some sparkling wine or mineral water. 

A deliberately awkward (and I felt slightly clumsily conceived and performed) exposition section ensued, establishing ‘Joel’s’ nervous performance-persona and a somewhat sketchy dramatic scenario in which he’d invited us up to his room after apparently having had sex there with someone (who it turned out later had possibly left with ‘Joel’s’ phone). Things became more interesting when he began throwing himself violently around the room, against the walls and on the floor; the use of his body and the space was remarkable throughout the show, especially given the confines of the hotel room, its typically cluttered and clunky furniture and the proximity of the audience. He then embarked on the story of his sexual coming-of-age as a teenager in Orange, saving up to buy his first gay porn magazine and compulsively wanking over it night after night; this lead to a hilarious physical sequence with him bouncing around under the doona on the bed.

The show became even more interesting when he asked an audience member to assist by operating sound and video cues on a laptop and then dimmed the lights, went into the bathroom, filled the bath, poured in bath foam, stripped, got in and began a writhing dance sequence, while his image was relayed back to us via a closed-circuit camera on the TV screen in the bedroom, before coming back naked and covered in foam to continue speaking and moving around the room. More personal revelations ensued about self-abuse in the form of smoking, drinking, drugs, casual sex, self-harm and even dance training itself. He danced again, then invited us to imagine what the country outside, its ceremonies and dances might have looked like before Europeans arrived – a landscape and culture now lost to us, and even more poignantly to him.

The final and most interesting part of the show involved Joel (now dried off and dressed again) giving audience-members hand massages using hotel products and inviting them to share their own stories about who they were and where they’d come from. He then put on some more music and we were invited to do some couples-dancing together (I danced with Joel and was complimented on my dipping-technique – ‘You’ve done this before!’– which was gracious of him but far from true). Finally we were invited to open the blinds and gaze down on the city at night, before being told the story of the platypus.

I found Biladurang an absorbing and moving experience. Despite the clunky dramaturgy at the start – which I felt had to do with its somewhat artificial nature – the rest of the show was finely judged in terms of its structure, pace, dynamics, use of space, physicality and text, and especially its relationship with the audience. Bray himself is a charming and compelling performer, especially when the artifice is left behind and he’s no longer ‘playing Joel’ but simply being Joel. The most effective part of the show for me was the last section, and especially the sharing of stories – which on the night I attended included one of Joel’s white foster-siblings (who revealed that they didn’t know at the time about his Aboriginality or that he was visiting his father) and a French woman of Native American ancestry who spoke about her ongoing relationship with land and ceremony. 

As we all left the hotel room together at the end, I was reminded of Inge Clendinnen’s book Dancing with Strangers, about the first months of tentative contact between the the First Fleet and Aboriginal Australians, and the sense of alternative possibilities that existed then – and perhaps still exists now, if only we have the courage and will: not to go back, but to move on.    

*


And so at last to Russell Dumas’s Cultural Residues 2020, the most artful and in its own way most provocative show I saw at Dance Massive. A standout work of pure choreography, it also managed to deconstruct the form/content dichotomy and address the questions of marketing and commodification raised at the beginning of this overview.

In a way, ‘dancing with strangers’ could also serve as a description of Cultural Residues, because of the eschewing of narrative or psychology in the duets and trios that make up the show. Even if Dumas’s dancers are known to us, and have certainly rehearsed and performed together, they are strangers in the freshness, immediacy and unfamiliarity with which they encounter each other and move together.

The program claims that the work explores ‘history and fake news’, but I suspect that this was partly Dumas poking fun at the need for dance to market itself by referring to ‘relevant’ social and political content in order to be funded, programmed or sold. In fact for Dumas all such references are probably ‘fake news’, because dance as an autonomous artform is arguably ‘about’ nothing other than itself.

However things are not so simple. Cultural Residues does not foreclose reference or escape ‘the closure of representation’; at the very least, it refers to and represents itself, because of the way it has been created and staged. The show takes the form of a re-enactment of material from Dumas’s own repertoire performed by a rotating cast of dancers (Jonathan Sinatra, Stuart Shugg, Alexandra Petrarca, David Huggins, Linda Astradipradja, Rachel Doust, Megan Payne) whom he has worked with over many years (Sinatra has been a member of Dumas’s Dance Exchange since 2011). According to the program, the cast choose the material, and Dumas chooses the sequence, so that the show is different each night. The dancers are also accompanied and illuminated by silent black-and-white film projections of what could be the same material (it was hard to be sure) performed by two other dancers (Josephine McKendry and Nick Sabel) thirty years ago.

Moreover Dumas’s work does have historical and social implications, not only because it’s conceived at least in part as an embodied critique of existing performance and political practices (including government arts funding policy and government-funded arts programming by institutions like Dancehouse and Dance Massive). More deeply it also seeks to ‘remember’ how movement and even thinking itself (including thinking about dance, arts funding and programming) become habits – and it does this in order to rediscover the possibility of moving and thinking differently. In other words: it’s a practice of freedom, or at least is in search of it: freedom of movement, freedom of thought, and above all perhaps the freedom of a form of sensation that is no longer tethered to meaning.*

This is partly (and perhaps only partly) possible because, as Dumas acknowledges in the program, his practice is financially supported by a network of artists and friends, and materially supported by the artists who work with him. In other words, he doesn’t receive (or more accurately, no longer receives) government funding and so is dependent on patrons and collaborators who presumably donate their money, time and skills for free. This is certainly a tribute to Dumas and the generosity of his patrons and collaborators, but it raises questions about the sustainability of this kind of practice – and even perhaps the sustainability of artform-based practice itself under mixed-economy capitalism.

It’s notable in this regard that Dumas was primarily inspired by the postmodern dance scene he encountered in New York in the 1970s after dancing in Australia and then the UK and Europe in the 1960s, since broadly speaking the limited performing arts opportunities that existed in Australia during that era were either amateur or commercial (Dumas himself danced for the dominant theatrical entrepreneur of the time J.C. Williamson), while in the UK and Europe government funding for the arts was already well-established and in its heyday. In New York by contrast there was (and still is) on the one hand a world-dominant commercial sector (Broadway) and on the other hand a largely self-funded experimental sector relying on cheap rents and free spaces like the Judson Church in Greenwich Village (or partially funded off-Broadway venues today). In other words: Dumas is still making work according to the social and economic model of mentors like Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharpe (or Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham before them). The difference is that the tradition (or ‘provenance’ to use a term favoured by Dumas) of American modern and postmodern dance arose in what might be called ‘salon’ or relatively small-scale performances; but that (in the case of its emblematic figures at least) it led to privately or publicly funded international touring companies and dance techniques that bear their names. In Australia by contrast a figure like Dumas is relatively isolated and unsupported by the social and political infrastructure, and so continues to work on a small scale and remains something of a legend in his own backyard – in his case, a small but dedicated community of supporters and collaborators in the contemporary dance community in Melbourne and at a ‘salon’ like Dancehouse.

This has its advantages, not only in terms of the work’s ferocious stylistic purity but also how it is made, presented and – perhaps most importantly – transmitted. As well as being a dancer and choreographer, Dumas is also a teacher who is interested in what he calls ‘embodied knowledge’ and how this is transmitted from one generation to the next. In fact he is interested in the faculty of sensation – both the sensations of the dancer and of the person watching (be that the audience or himself). As such he belongs to that tradition (or provenance) of teacher-artists who have much in common with religious or spiritual teachers (especially in Eastern traditions). Such artists and teachers are less interested in language than in the body, and have a particular focus on the present moment. In the context of dance, this means relying on movement and sensation rather than the ‘language’ of choreography, at least insofar as the latter is conceived in terms of writing things down or even naming them, as opposed to repeating and copying them. Once again, this focus on ‘presence’ still remains within ‘the closure of representation’, but it has more to do with images and sensations than words; and ‘representation’ here literally means doing something (or ‘making it present’) ‘again’. Of course, ‘doing something again’ also means doing it differently each time – which is partly why we continue to do or go to see live performances.

Cultural Residue2020 heightens this sense of ‘doing things again differently’ because of the way the material has been chosen, arranged, performed and juxtaposed with the film footage. This is projected onto a large fabric screen on one side of the raised proscenium stage at the rear of the Sylvia Staehli Theatre at Dancehouse. The screen can also be backlit to serve as a scrim behind which silhouettes of the live dancers approach and retreat or form various ensemble shapes. Most of the duets take place on the floor space below the proscenium (although a memorably trio takes place up on the proscenium itself) and are illuminated by spill from the projection or by minimal lighting from the floor. This is mostly from one side, so that shadows of the dancers are also thrown up on the opposite wall. The entire set-up is simple but enchanting and highly theatrical (a term Dumas himself might not like), being reminiscent of a magic lantern or perhaps Plato’s Cave. The superimposed layers of film, memory, physical presence and shadows evoke a dream-like state of contemplative reverie in the observer, and render us highly susceptible to the sensory and bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence of the work we are observing.  

Dumas’s choreography is obviously related to American postmodernism in its independence from narrative, language or music (there are none of these in the show), its minimalism and its interest in pedestrian movement – or more precisely, in what Dumas calls ‘the quotidian’. This is distinguished from ‘the everyday’ not only because of the skill required for its performance but because it focuses on ‘the forgotten in the everyday’; we might also call it the non-habitual, or even the anti-habitual. A simple example is running backwards; but most of Dumas’s choreography involves more complex mutual interactions between the dancers such as supporting, holding, lifting, catching, leaning or rolling against or away from each other, often in unusual ways or using unusual surfaces of the body, and in a state of perpetual imbalance which is endlessly sustainable and watchable. His preferred term for this is ‘managing instability’, and it obviously relates to the sense of ‘wildness’, ‘abandon’ and being ‘out of control’ that he admired in Trisha Brown and others when he encountered them, but which he felt was later tamed and commodified by being formalised as ‘techniques’; here though the mood is not so much ‘wild’ as gentle, focussed, flowing, peaceful, occasionally comic and very beautiful. As such there’s something inherently restrained, neo-classical and even Apollonian about it; the choreographer that springs to mind at least in this regard is Balanchine.

I found Cultural Residues 2020 a fascinating introduction to Dumas’s work, and a salutary reminder of what pure choreography can still achieve. In comparison with almost everything else I saw at Dance Massive, it dispensed with text, music, ‘sound’ and all but the most minimal lighting or other technical ‘effects’. It also dispensed with the marketing language employed by most of the other shows. Instead, it limited itself to simply saying what it would actually be and do, and then to simply being and doing that. As such, it posed some challenging questions about the making, presentation and marketing of work today. 

*Here and in what follows I’m indebted to an interview with Dumas conducted by Sally Gardner and published online in Postcolonial Studies; a link is available on Dumas’s website (Russell Dumas & Sally Gardner (2018)…dance for the time being: Russell Dumas in conversation with Sally Gardner, Postcolonial Studies, 21:3, 379–390).

*




Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Postcard from Adelaide Festival #3


Intimate Text-Based Theatre


Bertrand Lesca/Nasi Voutsas, Palmyra

Brian Lipson/Gideon Obarzanek, Two Jews Walk into a Theatre

Traverse Theatre Company, Ulster America

Teatro Nacional D. Maria II, By Heart

Bagryana Popov/La Mama, Uncle Vanya


*

As mentioned in my previous Postcard from Adelaide, the social and political themes of masculinity, racism, tribalism, displacement and exile that dominated the larger-scale, more ‘epic’ text-based shows at AF were also ‘reprised’ in the smaller-scale, more intimate works, alongside the more familial and personal themes of death, loss, trauma and memory, as well as the nature of theatre itself.

*


The most provocative show I saw at AF was Palmyra, a duet created and performed by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. The duo have been working together since 2015; this is their second work together. Lesca is a French theatre maker who trained in the UK, and Voutsas is a Greek Londoner; but their cultural background is not really important to the show; although on the night I saw it, Lesca’s Frenchness became part of the game; and despite his Cockney accent there was something about Voutsas’s dark complexion and beard that underscored his underdog status in relation to Lesca – especially given the title of the show. 

Palmyra is the ancient city in Syria that was occupied by Islamic State, who destroyed its cultural monuments and staged executions in its amphitheatre, footage of which they posted online. When the city was recaptured by Syrian government forces (backed by Russian air-strikes), a concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Gergiev (a former chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a well-known supporter of Vladimir Putin) was held in the amphitheatre in front of an audience of Russian soldiers, government ministers and journalists. The concert was broadcast on Russian state television, and intercut with footage of Syrian and Russian forces recapturing the city. Gergiev announced the concert as ‘an appeal for everyone to come and work together against terrorism’ and ‘a protest against barbarians on this great stage’, but it was widely seen as a propaganda exercise by the Russian and Syrian governments.

None of this is directly referred to in the show. The dialogue appears to be improvised, and mostly consists of ‘open scenes’, the content of which is ambiguous, and relies heavily on subtext. The actors use their own names, and the action takes place on a bare stage. Furniture and props consist of a chair, a couple of skateboards, a plate, a ladder, a hammer, some cardboard boxes containing with looks like rubble from other plates that have been smashed, and two brooms. There’s also a sound-desk with a MacBook, on which the actors play various tracks during the show, ranging from Handel’s Lascia ch’io piangato Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’, with a haunting use of ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys (the a cappella version) at the end of the show. 

Palmyrais a clown routine gone wrong; just how wrong probably varies from night to night. Its modern antecedents include Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Brecht’s ‘learning plays’, Absurdist theatre, Pinter’s ‘comedies of menace’, Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’, Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, theatre games, and a peculiarly English form of ‘post-dramatic’ theatre exemplified by the work of Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment. 

Despite its origins in clowning however there’s nothing funny, ‘entertaining’ or even particularly enjoyable about Palmyra. In fact it’s about as far as possible from being what Brecht called ‘culinary’ theatre; instead it’s an excruciating master-class in the art of political psychology and particularly the tactics of micro-aggression. 

Lesca teases, mocks, patronises, humiliates and torments Voutsas, using overt bullying and covert manipulation in the form of insinuation, denial and ‘gaslighting’ in order to drive him to rage and despair, all the while seeking complicity and even collaboration with the audience. On one level, he’s a classic ‘older brother’ or school bully; on a more sinister level, he’s an abusive partner or criminal psychopath like Pinky in Brighton Rock or Alex in Clockwork Orange; on perhaps the most dangerous level of all, he’s a populist demagogue. To me he was the embodiment what Chaucer called ‘the smiler with the knife under the cloak’ – the sneering oppressor whose avatar sits in the White House today. 

Voutsas (or ‘Nasi’ as Lesca repeatedly calls him) on the other hand is downtrodden, implosive and unpredictable – in other words, the classic victim of bullying or abuse, but also the embodiment of the oppressed and excluded ‘Other’ whom we alternately pity and fear, depending on how close he gets to us – or Lesca. When he threatens the latter with the hammer, we are genuinely worried; when Lesca persuades him to hand it over, and then gives it to someone in the audience to hide, we are partially relieved; when Voutsas asks them to give it back, we get worried again; and when Lesca asks them to come down from the safety of the auditorium, cross the stage, leave the theatre and give it to front-of-house, we get even more worried.

The night I saw it, audience members were variously tricked into complicity, refused to obey instructions, objected to what was going on or even heckled aggressively.
A fiendishly clever sequence unfolded when Lesca bragged about his perfect English and someone in the audience pointed out his French accent. He used this to flirt with another member of the audience about meeting him in Paris, and lured someone else into flaunting their knowledge of French poetry. At this point he went to the sound desk and played Lascia ch'io pianga againbefore pointing to Voutsas and saying: ‘He doesn’t understand.’* He then added: ‘We don’t want him here. We want him to leave.’ This had people calling out nobly, ‘No, we don’t! It’s not true!’ Someone else called out somewhat more ominously: ‘Give him the hammer!’

I found Palmyraa deeply unsettling night at the theatre, and a bold act of Festival programming. It spoke to me about masculinity, racism, tribalism, oppression and the origins of terrorism (state-sanctioned and otherwise) – not by invoking familiar sociological categories like gender, race, religion or class but more fundamental psychological structures like narcissism, rivalry, identification and co-dependency. 

As the sublime harmonies of Carl and Brian Wilson echoed at the end of the show, while Voutsas lay on his skateboard spinning alone on a stage littered with broken plates like the ruins of an ancient city:

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I'll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I'd be without you


*


Two Jews Walk Into A Theatre is another semi-improvised duet like Palmyra; but it takes a more meta-theatrical form. It’s also a lot funnier – and (despite some ups and downs) more compassionate and ultimately forgiving. 

Actor, director, designer and writer Brian Lipson has been conducting his role-playing ‘experiments’ (I’m borrowing the term from the play itself) for many years (perhaps most memorably for me as the anti-Semitic eugenicist Galton in A Large Attendance in the Antichamber). Two Jews is the one of the fruits of a Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council in 2011 during which Brian asked a series of kindred spirits to work with him. 

Co-devisor and co-performer Gideon Obarzanek has been conducting similar experiments on a more formal level at the interface of dance and theatre as a choreographer and director, both as a founding Artistic Director of Chunky Move, and as a freelancer since. In this case, the show is directed and choreographed by Obarzanek’s partner Lucy Guerin (the two co-directed and co-choreographed Attractor in 2017 – reviewed in a Postcard from Perth Festival last year).

Basically, the conceit is that Lipson and Obarzanek play their own fathers, in an imaginary meeting between the two while waiting in the foyer for their sons to do the show. For the first part of the show, they sit side by side onstage in front of the curtain on stools (which indeed resemble the stools in the actual theatre foyer); on the floor in front of them are sheets of butcher’s paper with handwritten topics of dialogue as if from a creative development rehearsal room, which they refer to when necessary.

As with Palmyra, much of the comedy (and dramatic conflict) proceeds from what Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’. Brian’s father Laurence was a London Jew whose family emigrated to England before the Second World War; Gideon’s father Zenek is a first-generation Polish-Australian whose parents were post-war refugees from the Holocaust and communism. Politically the two are at loggerheads: Laurence is a liberal who is critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, as well as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers; Zenek is more conservative both in his support for Israel and his opposition to ‘queue jumpers’. This leads to heated (and sometimes hilarious) arguments, culminating in Laurence calling Zenek a ‘Nazi’. On the other hand, the two have much in common on a more personal level: both are somewhat mystified and exasperated by their sons’ respective careers in ‘experimental theatre’ and contemporary dance; both had difficult relationships with their own fathers; and both, it finally turns out, have faced (or are facing) a date with destiny in terms of their own mortality. I’m reluctant to say too much about this, except that there was a happy coincidence with Laurence’s anecdote at the start of the show about the fact that the final destination of the bus he caught to the theatre in Norwood was called ‘Paradise Interchange’.

At this point, the two fathers agree that it’s time for them to ‘go in’. This leads to a beautiful transition from theatre to dance – as well as in the mood, aesthetic and use of the stage itself. I’m reluctant to say too much about this either, except that it involved a wonderful use of the curtain, as well as finely judged contributions from Guerin as choreographer, lighting designer Bosco Shaw and composer Oren Ambarchi. There was a kind of rhetorical chiasmus in this final section of the show, with both performers now moving instead of speaking, and Brian in the less familiar role of dancer (as opposed to Gideon being in the less familiar role of actor in the first part of the show). In both cases, there was a touching vulnerability about both performers taking it in turns to be out of their comfort zones. I was also struck by how movement as opposed to language had the effect of erasing a layer of identity and reducing things to the anonymity and freedom of the body. The distinction between roles and performers, or fathers and sons, became movingly (in both senses) blurred.

For me there was a psychological and political message in this as well. As a Jew myself – whose own father was a refugee from Nazism as well as being a political progressive, who had by his own account a wonderful relationship with his own father, and who was always generous about my own artistic proclivities – I saw the ending of the show as a image of reconciliation, with each other and ourselves, ‘Jews’ and ‘non-Jews’ alike. 

It reminded me of the saying ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, which is spoken or sung at the end of Seder to mark the beginning of Passover. The phrase can of course be interpreted literally, but also symbolically as a statement about the shared experience of ‘living in exile’ – whatever that means. In this sense, ‘Jerusalem’ is not a literal place, but a state of being. To truly ‘be’ in Jerusalem is not to go somewhere or claim something as one’s exclusive birthright, but to let go of divisive notions of identity and be reconciled with one’s past.

*


This leads me to the maelstrom of identity politics unleashed by Ulster American. Written by Belfast-born playwright David Ireland, and directed by Gareth Nicholls for the Traverse Theatre, the play (and production) was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. As staged in the Dunstan Playhouse (and putatively bound for the West End), it’s not as obviously ‘intimate’ as the other works discussed in this Postcard, but I could imagine it being so in its original incarnation at the Traverse – and perhaps all the more hard-hitting up close as a result. 

Compared to the rest of the Festival, in terms of dramatic form Ulster American is a relatively straightforward satirical one-act three-hander. In terms of content, though, it’s as explosive as much recent ‘Irish’ playwriting – most obviously the black comedies of Martin McDonagh. I put ‘Irish’ in quotes because McDonagh was actually born in London to Irish parents – a distinction relevant to Ulster American, which also asks what it means to be ‘Irish’ or an ‘Irish playwright’, as well as making fun of the question itself, along with the gesture of putting things ‘in quotes’. In fact the play satirizes just about every conceivable position – which in turn exposes it to attack from just about every conceivable direction, most obviously in terms of gender politics. 

The scenario is a meeting in a serviced apartment (an appropriately functional set design by Becky Minto) between three ‘creatives’: an English theatre director, Leigh (Robert Jack); a grizzled Hollywood actor, Jay (Darrell D’Silva); and an up-and-coming Northern Irish playwright, Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy). Leigh and Ruth are having their first meeting with Jay, whose commercial weight they are hoping to lend to a West End transfer of Ruth’s new play (set in Northern Ireland).

Leigh (in the funniest and most detailed performance of the night from Jack as a Basil-Fawlty-style neurotic) poses as a socially and politically progressive feminist and Remainer, but is revealed as a spineless hypocrite and ruthless careerist. Jay (a more broad-brushstroke caricature from D’Silva) promotes himself as a self-aware AA-member who ‘loves women so much he wishes he could be one’ and wants to get in touch with his Irish roots, but is actually an overbearing narcissist with no understanding at all of AA, feminism or Irish politics.

Both men are also exposed as patronizing and controlling in relation to Ruth, who is the most complex character of the three (and given a more realistic performance by McEvoy – at least until the crazed dénouement). As well as being a fan of Jay, she is also hoping for an entry to Hollywood; and her politics and tactics are also more nuanced (and ultimately vicious) than either of the other two. However she is also the target of Ireland’s satire, especially when she takes matters into her own hands and resorts first to social media and then physical violence in order to get what she wants, or failing that to exact appropriate revenge.

Leigh and Jay are easy targets, but Ruth is a more interesting figure, and the play is at its most provocative when it comes to satirizing #MeToo – as well as in the hypothetical discussion of rape that becomes the dramatic hinge for the plot. The latter appears to be the element of the play that has generated the most offence – at least in terms of its comic handling – especially among critics in the UK.

For me, the writing, performances and production were all highly skilful and for the most part hugely enjoyable. However the form of the play as a whole remained somewhat tame, and felt like the slightly prolonged set-up for a comedy of manners, at least until the carnivalesque and almost Bacchic descent into something more physical and primal at the climax of the show. This seemed to me to be getting at the roots of what identity politics and even certain aspects of #Me Too are really about. It made me want to see the curtain come down over the whole bloody mess, and then come up again for a much more interesting and unpredictable Act Two. There was also something safely straight, white and middle-class (or even more narrowly, ‘creative-class’) about the content: putting the issues of sexuality, class and especially race onto the stage would I felt have made the play much more provocative (here a queer black theatre work like Slave Play – reviewed in a previous Postcard – is far more of a game-changer, as well as in its much more sophisticated recursive form).

Ireland writes in the program note that like Ruth he grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, and that ‘it sometimes feels like the whole world is becoming like Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s’. I didn’t grow up in Northern Ireland (though I did live in the UK during some of those years of unraveling), but I share his impression that we now live in a time of crisis when ‘things fall apart’ and ‘the centre no longer holds’. Theatre is an ideal forum in which to explore and experiment with the consequences of this – as it always has been, from the Greeks to Shakespeare and beyond.

Let’s not be afraid to go there.

*


By Heart is written and performed by Tiago Rodriguez, the current Artistic Director of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon. In Adelaide it was staged in repertory with Two Jews Walk Into A Theatre at the Odeon, an old Art Deco cinema (and now home to the Australian Dance Theatre) in the leafy inner-eastern suburb of Norwood. Like Two Jews it’s a memory-play; like Palmyra it’s an interactive and even participatory work that touches on themes of tyranny and oppression, but it does so in a much more complex, gentle and intimate way. 

In fact the form and function of By Heart (as its title suggests) is literally one of aide-mémoire. Rodriguez invites ten volunteers from the audience to join him onstage and learn ‘by heart’ Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 about the consolation of memory (‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past…’). 

Rodriguez explains that he was inspired by an interview on Dutch television with literary critic George Steiner called ‘Of Beauty and Consolation’. Steiner begins with the claim that ‘memory is who we are’ and adds that ‘the bastards can’t take that away from us’. He tells the story of the Jew in the concentration camp who had memorized the Pentateuch and sections of the Talmud, and who invited his fellow inmates to ‘read me’. Steiner compares this ‘parable’ with the passage from Ezekiel about God commanding the prophet to eat the scroll containing ‘words of lament’ that ‘tasted as sweet as honey’ and to then recite the words to the people of Israel.

He then recounts an anecdote about Boris Pasternak refusing to speak in praise of Stalin at a Soviet Writer’s Congress in 1937 ‘bang in the middle of the Great Purge’. Pasternak was begged by his friends to speak out, as he would be arrested and killed whether he said something or not. In response, Pasternak stood up and spoke a number – ‘thirty’ – in response to which two thousand people stood up and recited Pasternak’s translation of the sonnet, with the result that he was neither arrested nor killed. (In fact a woman sitting beside me in the audience who knew Russian told me afterwards that Pasternak’s translation of the sonnet was the most well-known poem in Russian after ‘Tatyana’s Letter’ from Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin.)**

Finally Steiner refers to Nadezhda Mandelstam memorising her husband’s poems and teaching each poem to a circle of ten people, each of whom taught another ten people, and so on – which is obviously the inspiration for Rodriguez’s choice of ten audience members. (As my Russian-speaking neighbour informed me afterwards, ‘nadezhda’ also means ‘hope’ in Russian, so that the titles of her two-volume memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned can also be translated as ‘Nadezhda Against Nadezhda’ and ‘Nadezhda Abandoned’.)***

Steiner’s interview (and Rodriguez’s play) is as much about memory and identity as it is about history or politics. Indeed the emotional core of the play is another story, about Rodriguez’s grandmother Candida, who began losing her sight in the last years of her life, and asked her grandson to stop giving her books for her birthday, but instead to choose one work for her to commit to memory before losing her sight completely so that she could continue to ‘read’ it until she died. This was of course Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (translated into Portuguese). (Rodriguez doesn’t mention the fact that his grandmother would have lived through the Salazar dictatorship, but perhaps her story – and even her choice of sonnet – has a political meaning as well.)

Rodriguez interweaves this story and the interview with Steiner (which he himself has memorized) with the task of teaching the sonnet (which he has also memorized) to the ten audience members, who are seated in a line onstage like a conductor with a choir – the first four lines collectively, and then individually line by line. He also hands out books from a cardboard box, from which he recites passages (also memorized) – including a memorable episode from Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi dystopia Fahrenheit 451 about an old woman being immolated along with her library 

This might all sound somewhat dry and literary, but Rodriguez’s ingenious staging, infectious enthusiasm and sense of humour – together with the comedy and drama of watching the volunteers complete their task – made for a highly entertaining and deeply moving 90 minutes of theatre (Rodriguez announces that the exact length of the show depends on the volunteers). A coup occurred when he produced a box of communion-like wafers prepared by a Lisbon baker with the words of the sonnet inscribed on them in edible ink, and asked the volunteers to eat them, Ezekiel-like, bit by bit, leaving the fragment with their own line till last. 

When he described the scene of the blind Candida on her deathbed speaking the sonnet in its entirety for the last time, and then asked the volunteers to do likewise in a final collective recitation, the suspense was palpable; and when he ended the show by reciting the sonnet himself in Portuguese (as his grandmother would have done) and then exiting the stage, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

Ultimately however for me By Heart was neither a sentimental fable nor an intellectual exercise but an act of defiance – not just against totalitarianism, nor even (like Shakespeare’s sonnets) against time itself, but against the more imperceptible forms of domination, erasure and ‘repressive desublimation’ facilitated by digital technology.****

Learning things by heart is essential to theatre itself. As Steiner says: the bastards can’t take that away from us. Long may it continue.

*


Perhaps paradoxically (given its scale and the size of the cast) the most intimate work I saw in AF 2019 was Bagryana Popov’s site-specific, immersive production of Uncle Vanya for Melbourne’s La Mama. Performed over two days and nights at a rural location for a small audience of forty people, each Act commences at approximately the time of day or night indicated in the play. Previously ‘staged’ – if that’s the right word – at a country house on a sheep station near Daylesford in Victoria and at Arthur Boyd’s former property Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, here it was at the painter Hans Heysen’s former home The Cedars near Hahndorf in the Adelaide hills. I chose to stay overnight at the Old Mill Hotel in Hahndorf, about half an hour’s walk to the property. 

Between the Acts, it was possible to observe and even interact with the characters; there were also guided activities, including a Welcome to Country and talk by a local elder on the indigenous understanding of the area, a guided walk with local ecologists, an introduction to the house and its history by a Heysen family member, and an artistic tour of the house and Heysen’s studio by a local artist.

I found the whole package a richly rewarding experience, and cumulatively effective and affecting over the course of the four Acts and two days. The Cedars is an extraordinarily beautiful place – both Heysen’s classic Arts and Crafts house and garden and the surrounding landscape – and there was something about the old and slightly dilapidated furnishings, the sense of family history and a certain air of eccentric monomania that suited the play perfectly. Like Two Jews and By Heart (not to mention Chekov’s subsequent masterpieces Three Sisters and The Cherry OrchardVanya is also a memory-play – haunted by the dead, together with the sense of loss, blame, guilt and responsibility they leave behind. 

Act One took place around a table in the garden; Act Two moved from room to room around the house later that night; Act Three occupied the living room the following afternoon; and Act Four began outside the house and ended up back inside as evening closed in again. I’ve never experienced so directly the sense of place and time that is so crucial to the play. Astrov’s concern for the local flora and fauna had never seemed so real; the Professor’s proposal to sell the property – and Vanya’s reaction – in Act Three had never seemed so devastating or painful; all the more the case as we had listened to Heysen’s grandson in the same living room the previous day talk to us about forgoing his inheritance in order to pay for the upkeep of the house.

My favourite moments however occurred when encountering or observing ‘offstage’ events, between or during the Acts: going outside to explore the garden at the end of Act Three and coming across Astrov searching for Vanya; or glancing through a window from inside the house during Act Four to see Sonia walk Astrov to his car and then watch him drive away. These moments of private experience were almost like being in a film or a dream, and were wonderful instances of what immersive and durational performances are uniquely capable of delivering. In fact I found myself longing to stay overnight, and have the play unfold around me continuously over twenty-four hours. The guided activities enhanced the production, but I could happily have enjoyed them before the play commenced, and then experienced it uninterrupted.

Even if some of the transitions were a little awkward – and some of the performances a little uneven – I was progressively and persuasively caught up and carried along by the (very Chekhovian) sense that the cast had been collectively inhabiting and reliving the play (albeit in various settings) over the past three years. My own sense of ‘enduring’ and ‘living through’ something communally with them continued long after I had left the property and gone back to my little hotel room in Hahndorf. 

The task of enduring and ‘living on’ is of course a central concern in Chekhov; and learning to do so by ‘living with’ each other (and ourselves) is perhaps one of his deepest lessons.

*

NOTES 

* Not inappropriately the words of Handel’s aria, translated into English, are:

Let me weep over 
My cruel fate
And let me sigh
For liberty

May sorrows shatter
These chains of my torments 
Solely out of pity

** In fact a somewhat different version of the story is told by the British diplomat Max Heyward (who subsequently translated Doctor Zhivago as well as Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs into English). According to Heyward the event took place at a reading by twenty Russian poets (at which Heyward was present) on the theme ‘Down With The Warmongers’ which was staged at the Moscow Polytechnic in 1948 in retaliation to Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. Pasternak arrived late, announced that he had written nothing for the occasion, and then began reciting a series of his most popular poems, until someone in the audience called out for his translation of Sonnet 66 (‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’) – a much more telling and world-weary denunciation of corruption, injustice and tyranny (especially in its reference to ‘Art made tongue-tied by authority') than Sonnet 30's paean to memory. The convener of the reading immediately rang the bell to wind things up before Pasternak could recite the poem in its entirety. 

According to Heyward, anyone other than Pasternak would have been arrested and killed for this act of insubordination. Pasternak enjoyed special ‘protected’ status from the notoriously perverse Stalin, despite what Olga Ivinskaya in her memoir A Captive of Time (also translated by Heyward) called the ‘silent duel’ between them. Stalin called Pasternak a ‘holy fool’, tormented him by arresting and deporting his friends (including Mandelstam and Ivinskaya) and even mocked him for not speaking out on behalf of Mandelstam, who died in a ‘correction camp’ in 1938. 

Of the two versions of the story, Heyward’s seems more likely (indeed Heywood is probably the source of Steiner’s anecdotes). There was in fact no Soviet Writer’s Congress in 1937; the first was in 1932 (before the Great Purge), and the second in 1954 (after Stalin’s death). Moreover there’s no evidence of Pasternak ever having translated Sonnet 30, whereas he certainly did translate Sonnets 66, 73 and 84. The translation of 66 occurred in 1938 (i.e. during the Great Purge) around the time of his translation of Hamlet; and the content of the sonnet is clearly related to the play (in particular Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’), with which Pasternak had a special affinity (he also wrote a famous poem about Hamlet which was included in Doctor Zhivago). Shostakovich set Pasternak's translation of this sonnet to music in 1942; and it is one of the most frequently translated of all Shakespeare’s sonnets into Russian; so perhaps it was this sonnet that my Russian-speaking neighbour was alluding to. 

The point here is not to tax Steiner or Rodriguez with inaccuracy but rather to clarify the purpose of the story in each case. Steiner’s is a (perhaps somewhat idealised) anecdote about the power of memory to resist tyranny; Heyward’s is a (possibly more realistic) account of the relationship between poet and tyrant (and crucially concerns a sonnet with a much more political edge).

*** The story of the ‘circle of ten’ is in fact told of Anna Akhmatova and her friend Lydia Chukovskaya in Chukovskaya’s memoirs (and forms the basis for Alma De Groen’s play, The Woman in the Window). As far as Mandelstam is concerned: according to Nadezhda in Hope Against Hope it was she who alone memorized his poems and then had them transcribed and smuggled out of Russia. Once again, the play is about memory rather than accuracy – but it’s important not to forget or minimize the role of women in both stories (which is precisely the point of De Groen’s play).

**** ‘Repressive desublimation’ is the term used by the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse to describe the way consumer capitalism keeps us in check through the instantaneous gratification of desires. First described in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, it anticipates and perfectly describes the effects of digital technology.