Monday, 20 January 2014

Postcard from Perth 8

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Sacred Sites

Chris Isaac’s new play Flood is first cab off the rank for Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2014. More specifically, it’s the first of two Black Swan Lab productions in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre; it’s also the opening theatre production for Perth Fringe World Festival. Not surprisingly, therefore, the show sits across a number of fault-lines; in fact psychological, cultural, geographical, climatic and even tectonic instability are central themes in the play.


The Studio Underground is a problematic venue in terms of ambience, scale and economics. Located in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre, it’s a dark, cold, hard, unwelcoming environment – and that’s even before you get past the foyer and bar to the theatre itself. The latter only seats about 200 max, but it’s cavernous in dimensions, the seating configuration options are limited (and will soon be declared inflexible), and venue costs (mainly due to staffing requirements) make it an almost guaranteed loss for hirers.

Part of the problem is inherent in the design and resources of the venue; partly it’s that management has been outsourced by the state government to a commercial operator, A.E.G. Ogden  – who also manage His Majesty’s, Perth Concert Hall, Subiaco Theatre Centre, Albany Entertainment Centre, Perth Arena, and various other theatres, arts centres and arenas around the country. This means that (even with the best will in the world) there’s a fundamental mismatch between the commercial imperatives of venue management and the needs and resources of the people who use it (artists, theatre companies and the theatre-going public). This mismatch is arguably common to all public institutions and services (essential or otherwise) that are sold or outsourced by the state to commercial operators. For my money, the role of the latter is to manage commercial enterprises, not State Theatre Centres. Perhaps it explains why visiting or working there feels a bit like entering a commercially-run prison – a feeling enhanced by the architecture and design of the building and central courtyard. You almost expect to see screws patrolling the walkways, dragging their batons along the railings or staring down at you, as you go about your business down below hoping to make or see some theatre.

There’s a corresponding confusion about the function of the venue, too: is it to house a resident theatre company (or companies); to be a producing venue in its own right; simply to be a venue for hire; or perhaps all of the above? If the first, or even the second, applies, where are the production and design workshops and storage facilities? Black Swan sets and costumes for example are now constructed and stored out at Belmont, closer to Perth Airport than the theatres for which they are intended. Despite the company offices upstairs, and the labyrinth of corridors and rooms downstairs for management, technical and catering staff, rehearsal-rooms, dressing-rooms and even mysterious ‘multi-purpose’ rooms, sometimes the place feels like little more than a shell. One is reminded of the famously efficient hospital with no patients in Yes Minister.

To some extent, this reflects the confusion of purpose and crisis of identity that now besets arts centres everywhere. Following the development of London’s South Bank Centre in the 1950s, multi-functional venues began springing up in capital cities, across the country in Australia in the 70s and 80s, from the Adelaide Festival Centre to the Sydney Opera House to the Arts Centre Melbourne – primarily to house state theatre, opera and ballet companies and orchestras that had outgrown their tenancies in the old Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco commercial theatres and town halls. They continue being built today in regional centres like Albany (and Perth). Meanwhile mainstage theatre and dance companies in Sydney and Melbourne have progressively managed to free themselves by building home venues of their own. 

In this regard it’s worth noting that the WA Symphony is already is housed in the Perth Concert Hall, built with remarkable foresight back in the 70s on a magnificent site overlooking the Swan River and designed with superb acoustics (unlike the Heather Ledger Theatre in the State Theater Centre). One can only hope that – perhaps with a little tinkering around the edges and a few improvements internally – the State Theatre Centre will likewise come to find and play its own unique role in the landscape, especially once the refurbishment of Perth Station is completed and the venue no longer opens onto a vast building site (and probably the least pedestrian-friendly street in the city). Otherwise it risks becoming a monumental white elephant: at best, a vain act of cultural-palatial folly; at worst, a cynical act of pork-barreling by a corrupt state government in the dying days of the mining boom. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ As in Shelley’s poem, only time will tell.

Underlying all this is a broader crisis in the viability and sustainability of traditional arts, entertainment and media platforms, producers and workplaces – from theaters, concert halls and cinemas to studios, broadcasters and publishers (and beyond these to manufacturing, distribution and retail generally) – in a post-industrial era of globalization, automation, digital technology and a knowledge-based economy. How venues, companies, audiences and artists (or indeed art-forms) will weather this sea-change remains to be seen, in Perth and elsewhere. Sacred sites, cultural rituals and traditional practices may have to adapt to a radically altered environment.


Against this background of uncertainty, Black Swan is in the process of transition – from a small-to-medium-sized and largely State government-funded company (established in the early 90s by Andrew Ross, an artistic director with a distinctive vision of WA theatre and its relationship to Aboriginal and European settler culture) to a self-titled ‘Flagship’ State Theatre Company supported by the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council alongside the WA Opera, WA Ballet, STC, MTC and other national institutions deemed ‘Major Performing Arts Organizations’. Moving into the State Theatre Centre has been a crucial step in this transition.

The Black Swan Lab is a new initiative supporting the work of emerging and resident artists with the company. Chris Isaacs developed Flood while a member of the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group. He’s also a member of Perth independent company The Last Great Hunt – which also includes members of other local indie companies like The Duck House, Weeping Spoon and Side Pony. It’s all a bit confusing, but basically reflects the collaborative and cross-platform nature of theatre and performance making in Perth. The cast of Flood includes Will O’Mahony (independent writer, director and artistic director of his own company The Skeletal System) and Adrienne Daff (an independent performer and devisor who’s also a member of several companies including The Last Great Hunt and Side Pony); movement director Danielle Micich is an independent director, choreographer and performer; director and dramaturg Adam Mitchell has been an associate artist with Black Swan for about ten years; sound designer Ben Collins was a Resident Artist last year; set and costume designer India Mehta, lighting designer Chris Donnelly and actor Joshua Brennan are all Emerging Artists with the company this year. All in all, it’s good to see a State Theatre Company collaborating with local artists like this. It’ll be interesting to see how the Lab develops and what effects it has, both in relation to the surrounding Perth independent scene and the company’s mainstage season in the Heath Ledger theatre upstairs. It’ll also be interesting to compare with independent initiatives and seasons springing up across the country like Neon at MTC, Helium at The Malthouse, Griffin Independent or La Boite Indie. One signal difference is that all the artists involved in the Lab are being paid a wage or fee rather than taking a cut at the door, which is to be applauded. Wesley Enoch, take note!

At this point it’s probably incumbent on me to declare that I’m a resident artist at Black Swan myself this year. Nevertheless, I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with Flood – so I feel I’m in a position to review and reflect on the show, which I think is an important new work on many levels, especially because of the issues it raises surrounding the representation of race and racism onstage (and by implication offstage as well). However, it’s impossible for me to do so without describing it in some detail, and from a critical perspective. So this is also probably the point to issue a spoiler alert to those who haven’t seen it – and a warning to those involved in producing and performing it: Caveat emptor! Read on at your peril; if in doubt, don’t; or read this only after you’ve seen it - or the season’s over.


There’d been an attempt to ‘Fringe-ify’ the foyer and bar of the Studio Underground for the opening night of Flood by making it more funked-up – if not user-friendly –with a walkway of overhanging spear-like fronds tipped with red paint (or perhaps the blood of unwary patrons). Inside the theatre, the seating blocks had been unfixed and rearranged (apparently for the last time in this supposedly flexible studio space) on three sides in a thrust configuration – of dubious benefit, at least to my eyes, to the staging, audience or performers, since direct address was largely the order of the day. In order to allow for the sight-lines of the side seating blocks, the stage had to be pushed well back from the front row of the central block – which meant that those in the back rows were a long way away from the action. Nevertheless, there was a sense of having made a real effort to transform the ambience of the space.

The ensemble cast of six were pre-set lounging or crouched in various positions and attitudes around a raised stage of artificial rock in the shape of roughly concentric ledges or terraces descending to a central pool, which filled up with water halfway through the show. A decade ago (when I arrived in Perth) it would have been orange pindan dust covering the floor: a sure sign that an unimpeachable work of ‘West Australian theatre’ was about to unfold. Now it was fake orange rock. I think the pindan was marginally more convincing. Certainly it was easier for actors to navigate, notwithstanding some subtle but effective (and, for the most part, convincingly inhabited and executed) choreography by movement director Danielle Micich, which helped to integrate the staging and action, and make the show a work of physical as well as verbal storytelling.

Flood also presents as a ‘Fringe’ show in terms of the ‘edginess’ of its personnel and (at least putatively) its form and content. The characters (at least those who are visible and have a voice – about which more in due course) are six young white Anglo-Celtic middle-class urban hipsters (three boys and three girls) in their late teens or early twenties, who reunite for a road trip north and inland: a familiar rite of passage for anyone who’s grown up or had kids in Perth. The form is ensemble storytelling theatre – with direct address to the audience shared amongst the cast –alternating with flashes or scenes of dialogue, in sometimes uneasy juxtaposition. Nevertheless, the generic tropes that spring to mind are ones we associate less with theatre than film: in rapid succession, teen-movie morphs into road-movie, then tantalizes us with the prospect of caper-movie, slasher flick and (most promisingly of all from my point of view in terms of language and imagery) apocalyptic sci-fi, before finally settling into the group-crime/collective-guilt/shared-secret sub-genre familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Deliverance, River’s Edge, Jindabyne or even (to sink a little lower into the murky depths of pop culture) I Know What You Did Last Summer  – not to mention the movie that arguably got the ball rolling, John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

The locus classicus on the subject in the field of psychological anthropology is of course Freud’s Totem and Taboo, with the hypothesis of the primal horde (derived in turn from the sociobiological speculations of Darwin) and the collective murder of the father by his sons (the so-called ‘band of brothers’), which according to Freud lies at the origin of all religion, law, and society. In the context of Flood, it’s worth noting that Freud’s speculations even begin with an analysis of the function of totemism in Aboriginal Australia. Even more relevant to the play is the extension of Freud’s hypothesis by the French literary scholar René Girard in Violence and the Sacred, with his theory of mimetic desire and the sacrificial function of the scapegoat, which allegedly plays a central role across all cultures and cultural forms, including literature and drama.

As for what I’m calling the ‘sub-genre’ of collective guilt or the shared secret, there’s obviously a family resemblance with broader literary, theatrical or cinematic genres like tragedy, crime or even noir in terms of plot, character, setting and themes – typically including murder (and even multiple fatalities), illicit sex, a flawed protagonist (or group-protagonist) – who is often also a killer or accomplice, and may even ultimately die themselves – a fatalistic world-view and a universe correspondingly governed by inexorable and cruel laws. The specific setting may be (as in classical tragedy) the aristocratic world of the court; or (as in crime fiction) the country manor house, urban jungle or small-town community; or finally (as in rural or outback Gothic) the country town, the remote property, the highway, the river, the lake, the mountains, the forest or the desert.

It’s worth noting in this regard that this sub-genre typically deals with settings riven by fault-lines of class-conflict, often defined by subsidiary markers like age, gender, sexuality, skin-colour, language, nationality or culture. Perpetrators and victims often confront each other across these fault-lines: most memorably perhaps in the case of Deliverance with the conflict between the urban tourists and hillbillies  – although one also thinks of the three-way conflict over the stolen gold between the American prospectors, Mexican bandits and militia in Sierra Madre, the various generational and sexual conflicts in River’s Edge, or on a more simplistic or token level the role of the dead Aboriginal woman in Jindabyne (in comparison little more than an add-on to the original Carver story). Indeed, the limitations of genre become apparent as soon as this level of attention to the mechanics of class – which gives a film like Deliverance its compelling and enduring power, beneath the mechanics of character, plot and even environment – falters or relaxes its grip.

To switch to TV for a moment, I’ve recently been watching a prime example of contemporary Gothic noir in Jane Campion’s haunting but dubious series Top of Lake – ‘dubious’ because of the way the series applies the more-or-less predictable tropes of the genre (rape, murder, disappearance, incest, sexual perversity, monstrous fathers, corrupt cops, drug-dealing bikies) to a moralizing and ultimately reductive agenda (in this case, the all-too-predictable exposure of sexual abuse in the context of a remote and impoverished New Zealand community whose principal livelihood inevitably revolves around the manufacture of amphetamines). 

The problem lies in the tendency of ‘genre fiction’ or ‘genre films’ (in this respect not unlike the ‘genre paintings’ of earlier centuries) to substitute clichés or stereotypes for fully individualized characters or realized settings, genuine depth of motivation or analysis, or an original or convincing plot. When this happens, the dictates of genre take over from the autonomous rules of art or logic, the principles of psychology or the dynamics of social reality. In brief: form and content become derivative rather than drawn from actual experience. This substitution isn’t necessarily the result of laziness or lack of talent; rather, it reflects the commercial imperatives of the culture industry, which tends only to invest in the manufacture and distribution of identical commodities for mass consumption in the age of mechanical reproduction (Hollywood, anyone?).

In the case of Flood, harnessing the ensemble-storytelling-theatre form to the group-crime/shared-secret sub-genre in order to ‘plough the field’ of white Australian collective guilt is a noble and ambitious enterprise that didn’t quite work for me. At first I was happy to go along with the superficial characterization and clichés of the teen-road-movie genre (complete with an almost non-stop cinematic soundtrack continually telling me – in case I had any doubt – what I was watching or how to respond). My attention was held partly because of some finely tuned and engaging acting, which gave colour and depth to the sketchy nature of the characters, but also because of a level of self-reflexive ‘meta-generic’ irony in the script (including a mocking reference to Cloudstreet as the tattered icon of West Australian fiction and theatre) which kept me in there with promises of a WA outback version of Wes Craven’s Scream (perhaps via the classic Ozploitation flicks of the 70s, up to and including Wolf Creek). And with the arrival of the group at a mysterious water-hole, ensuing late-night campfire intimations of unresolved group dynamics, some odd behaviour from a weird mob of neighbouring kangaroos, and a cataclysmic dust storm, I was feeling game for some outback atavism along the lines of Walkabout, Wake in Fright, The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock or even (at the tail-end of the meteor-storm of Australian independent cinema in the late 70s) the overblown mysticism of The Last Wave.

But then, about twenty minutes in, a crucial turning-point lost me for the rest of the show: the unexplained appearance (as if out of nowhere) of a nameless and essentially featureless Aboriginal man – barely described as barefoot, possibly drunk, speaking in an incomprehensible language and apparently insisting that the group vacate what is presumably a sacred waterhole (in which they are all frolicking naked). His featurelessness is so to speak ‘dis-embodied’ by the fact that – being an outsider and intruder in relation to the storytelling group – he doesn’t (and indeed can’t) actually appear or speak in person onstage. In other words, he is pure projection –the Other in its primordial negativity. This inherently unstageable encounter with something utterly unreal and insubstantial (like an all-too literal figuration of the archetypal Jungian Shadow) leads (likewise unstageably) to a violent confrontation, and then (once more unexplained and out of nowhere) the murder (with a hammer, no less) of the outsider/intruder by one of the group, Mike (again, well-acted but critically underwritten in terms of back-story or motivation).

The implausibility of this sequence of events is further ‘underwritten’, so to speak, by the fact that these apparently cool contemporary Perth groovers seem never to have interacted with or even met an Aboriginal person before – or even to be able to decide what to call ‘them’ (stumbling over the political correctness or otherwise of the term ‘indigenous’, seemingly unable to even articulate the word ‘Aboriginal’, and relying instead on a grating repetition of the generic pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ for the rest of the play) – let alone demonstrate any understanding or even awareness of the most elementary cultural protocols. Added to this unlikeliness is that of a solitary Aboriginal person today physically attacking a group of white people for desecrating a sacred site (or indeed for any other reason) – one thinks for example of the astonishing forbearance shown by traditional owners towards tourists who chose to climb Uluru (not to mention all the other offences, intentional or otherwise, daily heaped on past injuries); let alone the unlikeliness of a young white urban tourist responding by killing his indigenous attacker with a hammer.

This fatal turning-point was nonetheless skilfully navigated by the actors (Adrienne Daff giving a fearless and forthright performance as Frankie, the principal cultural offender) – although unnecessarily underscored by the soundtrack and illustrated by the set in what might be a called a pathetic fallacy of staging and design, with the pool at the centre of the rocks beginning (a little noisily on opening night) to slowly fill up with water. The Biblical invocation in the script at this point of some kind of mysterious subterranean upheaval (‘and the rocks were rent asunder’) further emphasized the Christ-like nature of the sacrifice (Girard’s theory of the scapegoat in full dress rehearsal, so to speak). In place of any compelling or convincing social or psychological motivation, a theological rite was being enacted. This was no longer theatre – where the suspension of disbelief is maintained in the fully enlightened consciousness of fictional representation – but the ritualized performance and unconscious re-enactment of pure myth.

From here on until the end of the play, things played themselves out with an almost mechanical sense of inevitability in terms of the writing, if not the acting – from generic acts of emotional blackmail and sexual betrayal by the group leader Sal (convincingly inhabited by Will O’Mahony) to a final paroxysm of suicidal guilt by the perpetrator, Mike (played with a touching innocence by Josh Brennan). Here at least the set design at last paid off with the beautiful, pre-Raphaelite if typically fatalistic image of Mike floating face upwards in the water like Millais’s Ophelia. Yet once again neither the beauty of the image nor the honesty of the performance could convince me of the act itself as an authentic ending to the play.


In the program for Flood, Chris Isaacs says he's ‘aware as a young, male, white playwright [that] the authenticity of certain voices are up for question’. What does this mean, and why does he feel the need to label himself in this way? He says ‘we seem to have a habit of labelling issues in this country’ – so why does he seem do to the same? ‘Race relations in Australia are not just indigenous issues’ – but in defining them as ‘race relations’, haven’t we already labelled them in a way that’s arguably racist in advance? He says he ‘approached the topic from a world I know’ – what topic, and what world? The world of real experience, or the world of genres and received ideas? The word ‘topic’ derives from the Greek topos koinos, meaning ‘common-place’ – literally the ‘common-place’ of standard arguments, materials and rhetorical devices. Such topics and commonplaces are not necessarily reliable strategies for art.

The director and dramaturg of Flood, Adam Mitchell, also has a note in the program, in which he talks about the play ‘continuing Black Swan’s conversation about race in Australia’. A conversation between or amongst whom? A bunch of young, uniformly Anglo-Celtic Australians, who can’t even articulate the word ‘Aboriginal’, let alone talk to one in the flesh? And a conversation about what? The nature or failure of so-called ‘race relations’, or the deconstruction of the concept of ‘race’ itself? In any case, I’m not sure I actually heard ‘a conversation about race’ onstage.

Let it be said: I applaud Chris, Adam, the performers, their fellow-creatives and the company for their courage in putting it out there, on the page and on the stage, and inviting the conversation to take place. Let it also be said that they invite criticism if and where the work fails to measure up to its own intentions. This is after all the only way an autonomous culture can reach true independence and maturity. Too often we are soft on ourselves as artists and critics. As result Australian theatre, film, literature, art and music proceeds in fits and starts, and remains unsure of itself.

I sense this in the way Adam’s program note compares the ‘responsibility’ or ‘connection’ (if any) that ‘a 20-something Australian’ feels to ‘Indigenous Australia’ with ‘the very real sense of guilt for atrocities that took place in Europe more than 60 years ago’ which he encountered in Berlin among ‘German students’ – along with ‘a post-war reluctance to have any pride in modern day Germany or any sign of nationalism or collective pride’. With all due respect to the genocide that took place (and continues to take place) here in Australia, I’m not sure the comparison with Auschwitz is especially illuminating. To be blunt: it’s drawing a long bow to compare the two; indeed, they are radically incomparable. However I also find the need to make the comparison itself revealing. What is the source of our (as opposed to Germany’s) lack of pride in our past or self-esteem in our culture? What is the specific nature of the wounds we carry within us – and perhaps our forebears brought with them – and which we in turn inflict on others less powerful or fortunate than ourselves – Aborigines, refugees – rather than seeking to heal ourselves, and allowing them to do likewise.

What is the distinctive nature of racism here in Australia – and more specifically, racism towards Aboriginal people – both in the past and now, today? How does it reach down into the souls of individual men and women, white and black? Why can’t we ask this question without resorting to anthropological, mythical or theological ideas and fantasies about sacrifice – a label which is as inappropriate and offensive when applied to the genocide of Aboriginal people as it is when applied to the genocide of the Jews? Why do we find it so difficult to put Aboriginal people onstage as people rather than as projections or stereotypes – that is, when we allow them onstage at all? Instead of fatalistic images and narratives of endless conflict and violence, why do we find it so difficult to represent, achieve or even broach the subject of reconciliation in this country, for past and present injustices perpetrated against Aboriginal people and culture? Why do we continue to trade in guilt – and in so doing, to repeat those very injustices, even with the best of intentions (with which, as we know, the road to hell is paved)?

Once again, I think of Sean Tan’s 'Stick Figures' in Tales from Outer Suburbia, and the Aboriginal people and families – the kids and couples and parents and grandparents – who are my neighbours in the suburb where I live: those I say hello to at the bus stop or on the street, and those I walk past and ignore or avoid. I think of the elders and artists and leaders I admire, and those whose authority I question. I think of the Aboriginal people I’ve worked with or know, and whom I think of as colleagues or friends; and I think of the encounters I’ve had with Others – anonymous shadows onto whom I too have projected my own fears and desires. And the more I think about them, all these people, all these shifting categories, the more I feel that, in the end, who you are, or where you come from, or your language, or your culture, or the colour of your skin, makes no difference to me; that in the end there’s no difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – between white, English-speaking, Anglo-Celtic and other Australians; that we’re all just people, brothers and sisters, with more in common that whatever divides us; and that it’s not really ‘race’ that divides us, because there’s really no such thing. What divides us is income, employment, education, health, housing and other basic rights – amplified by the ignorance, fear, hatred, envy, contempt, shame, rage and guilt that follow. In other words: what divides us is class, power and politics.

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