Thursday, 6 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 10

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Gothic Landscapes and Lost Children 

Fringe World Week 2:The Silo, The Night Guardian, MKA Dogmeat

Last Saturday night at 9pm I made my way out to the Midland Railway Workshops to see The Silo, created and performed by Pippa Bainbridge and her collaborators as part of Fringe World.

For readers who don’t live in Perth: Midland is at the end of the suburban train line on the eastern edge of the metropolitan area. In fact Midland Station is where the Kalgoorlie Prospector leaves twice a day to cut through the Perth hills and cross the wheat-belt to the goldfields – one of my favourite journeys if you’ve got a day to spare each way.

Originally Midland Junction was a railway town, and the workshops were the centre of industrial activity. Now it’s a pretty desolate place: the Great Eastern Highway runs through the centre of town, what commercial or community life there is has shifted across the railway line to Midland Gate Shopping Centre, and the workshops themselves closed down in the 90s and are now a haunting collection of ruins on a vast site which is currently being redeveloped by the State Government.

Some of the site’s been demolished and cleared to make way for residential and other developments (including a police centre and a state hospital) – though you can’t help wondering about the level of industrial contamination, not to mention the coal-storage dam and treatment plant at the edge of the site. Nevertheless, some impressive buildings remain largely untouched: among them the old Powerhouse where Silo was performed.

The Powerhouse is a vast cathedral-like space with a dirt floor and a magnificent jarrah roof. Silo was staged in one corner against a hulking pile of machinery, with a rusted sheet of corrugated iron punctured by stage lights as a backdrop, and a ladder leading up to dark mezzanine balcony. Melancholy ambient pre-recorded soundscape played intermittently throughout.

We sat in a single row of seats while Pippa clambered around the machinery and recited a story based on her childhood growing up in the wheat-belt town of Wongan Hills. The story concerned the mysterious disappearance of a neighbourhood child (whose body ended up being found in a wheat silo), but the language focused primarily on setting rather than character or plot – or rather, on the character and story of the landscape itself, its geography and history, and especially its devastation by unsustainable land-clearing and farming, interwoven with Noongar dreaming stories about the giant snake called Wagyl who created the waterways and landforms in the South-West.

In such an overwhelming space, and with such evocative words, I found myself wanting more – or perhaps less – than what was essentially a recitation of the story, eloquent as it was. Indeed, I began to imagine engaging with both real and imaginary settings in other, perhaps more imaginative ways. For example I could have simply listened to a pre-recording of the words alone, unaccompanied by action or soundscape, while sitting there or walking around and taking in the ruins around me. Or I could have engaged with the text in other ways: as scraps of writing on walls for example, or even more obliquely as objects or images on display or lying around, for me to find and contemplate in a more associative and personal way.

Somehow the meaning of the work was too ready-made, too prefabricated, too digested, and ironically this prevented it from speaking to me directly on its own behalf. Perhaps more profoundly the story itself lacked the crucial element of agency – the actions of a character or characters deciding and making their own fate – that is essential to all narrative and especially narrative drama. The mythical story of the Wagyl has more to teach us in this regard than the social history of a place, town or community that's been drained of agency in advance by the actions of those who came before.

Perhaps Silo will ultimately find its form as a site-specific installation rather than a solo storytelling performance. Meanwhile, I was happy to make the journey out to Midland on a starry summer night, and be reminded of where I live, in all its sadness and beauty.


On Tuesday night I was back at PICA for the opening of two shows in the Summer Nights season: The Night Guardian by local emerging playwright Jessica Messenger and Dogmeat by Melbourne company MKA.

The Night Guardian is essentially an onstage super-hero comic book (or graphic novel if you prefer). The Night Guardian herself is a girl with the psychic power to basically make people blind, along with the usual repertoire of martial arts prowess common to all masked, caped or costumed crusaders. It’s a nice twist given her own ‘blindness’ to the evil government forces that control and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Like most superheroes she’s also been cruelly separated from her parents and raised by mysterious and manipulative mentors.

Dialogue is written and spoken as if uttered in speech-bubbles, knowingly clichéd and even witty (though not in the Joss Whedon class); characters are similarly cut from standard cloth but with original quirks; the plot is nicely if conventionally shaped and appropriately both risible and engaging; and the setting – evoked by an essentially cardboard cut-out set design, moodily coloured lighting and soundtrack – is the usual post-contemporary yet strangely retro megalopolis we’re familiar with from Batman to Blade Runner  (still the finest original cinematic comic for grown-ups in my book, and explicitly referenced in The Night Guardian with the aid of some strategically placed origami).

The performances of Ellen O’Connor and Nick Maclaine as (anti-) heroine and (anti-) hero at least give some life and nuance to the stereotypes they’re called upon to inhabit. I enjoyed their onstage sparring and chemistry, O’Connor’s genuine sense of inner struggle, and Maclaine’s comic timing and natural energy.

None of this however manages to raise the play about the level of pastiche. Ultimately I wasn’t sure of the point, or more perhaps more crucially the tone. If it’d been an out-and-out send-up I wouldn’t have needed a point, but the sheer length and intricacy of proceedings kept making me feel like more was supposed to be at stake.

Watching it all unfold onstage had its own predictably cheesy satisfactions but also made me more than ever aware of the underlying geekiness of the genre. It’s for kids, after all; except it isn’t; at least, not any more; and there’s the rub. With enough originality, sophistication, satirical wit or political sting – fortified by an admixture of neo-noir or other genres like cyber-fiction or occult horror – it can become Blade Runner, Robocop, Buffy (or in the realm of graphic novels, Alan Moore’s Watchmen or V for Vendetta). Without this, it’s just good old-fashioned 1950s adolescent fantasy or Cold War paranoia.

The Night Guardian has been in development since 2012 with the assistance of Stages WA, Perth Theatre Company’s Pop-Up Playreadings and Re-Gen WA, a joint initiative by DCA, Playwriting Australia and the National Script Workshop in association with Fremantle’s erstwhile Deckchair Theatre Company.

At this point I have to confess my doubts about the process of ‘script development’ as currently supported by various organizations and companies in a way that’s divorced from actually making a show, or indeed from any commitment to production by said companies. In other words, in this process a ‘script’ is ‘developed’ by people (for example ‘dramaturgs’) who have no investment in outcome. In fact for all practical intents and purposes there is no outcome, except another draft of the script.

I have to confess I’ve been employed as a ‘dramaturg’ in this capacity myself, and many a script I’ve seen lose its way while being passed from hand to hand over the years, until all trace of its original character has been completely worn away and it’s become little more than a Chinese whisper of its former self. Truth be told, something of the same corrupting process can also be observed in the case of ‘creative development’ funding and workshopping; and again I plead guilty of participating in this process, on my own projects and others.

For the record, I think there are more substantial notions of dramaturgy, playwriting and indeed development than these – all of which in my view depend for their effectiveness on their practitioners being fully engaged and immersed in the collaborative process of making a show. More on this in a future Postcard.

I’m in no position to say what bearing any of this has on The Night Guardian. However for me the show had some of the hallmarks of this kind of ‘development’: uncertainty of tone and purpose; a disconnection between script, production and performance-style; and an overall sense of slightly random heterogeneity amongst the cast and other creative contributions. In short, it felt like a provisional team giving a provisional production to a provisional draft of the play.


And so at last (but by no means least) to Dogmeat.

MKA are a Melbourne-based company focused on playwriting and playwrights. As I write that sentence I'm struck by the divergent spelling and connotations of those two words. A playwright is someone who makes plays in the sense that a wheelwright or cartwright is someone who makes wheels or carts (from the chunky Old English word wrychta, meaning someone who works or shapes something in wood – although the world is also a pleasing homonym for the modern English ‘writer’). In other words, a play’s a thing that’s manufactured and has a practical function. It’s made well or badly; it works or it doesn't. 'Playwriting' on the other hand suggests a more rarified activity involving a pen or a keyboard to compose something that has an almost immaterial or virtual existence on a page or a screen.

There's nothing rarified, immaterial or virtual about Dogmeat or the work of MKA.

There are six discernible characters: 'Dogmeat', a child who is chained up on the street outside his home in his underwear, feeds from a metal dish and barely speaks; his parents, who have moved from the country to the city for work (dad drives a taxi) and whose other child has been abducted; two local youths called Coyote and Lucky (played by the same actors as the parents) who finger-fuck dead dogs, sniff aerosol cans and hatch get-rich-quick schemes (one of which somehow involves liberating Dogmeat from his chain); and a mysterious well-dressed man who talks to the audience about beating and killing his pet dog (and is possibly a child rapist and killer).

Dogmeat is written (or should I say manufactured?) by MKA's creative director Tobias Manderson-Galvin and (in this iteration) directed by co-creative director John Kachoyan and performed by a cast of four who go unmentioned in publicity or on the company website. It's notable that MKA doesn't promote or fetishize actors in the same way it promotes and unrepentantly fetishizes playwrights, while lighting, costume, set or sound designers also go unmentioned (all are excellent, as are the performances, especially Devon Lang Wilton and Manderson-Galvin himself).

MKA started out in 2010 in an old knitting factory in Richmond (a former industrial inner-city suburb of Melbourne just north of the river that divides the town). Since then they've been a peripatetic company putting on work in various pop-up venues around town. Dogmeat was first performed in the courtyard outside La Mama Theatre as part of the 2010 Melbourne Fringe. For those who haven’t been there, La Mama is also a former factory (underwear as it happens) in the inner-north suburb of Carlton; would have to be the smallest theatre in the country (it makes the Blue Room look like Perth Arena); and has been a standard bearer for counter-traditional work (like its New York namesake) for the last forty-odd years.

If MKA defiantly foregrounds playwrights rather than auteur-directors, designers or even actors, their plays are a far cry from the more cerebral, talking-head or naturalistic post-WW2 Anglo-Australian tradition from Lawler to Williamson – or the English repertory writing and performance style that gave rise to it and still dominates our main stages. If anything, Dogmeat has more in common with a more baroque, corporeal, even visceral Australian counter-tradition that includes Patrick White, Jack Hibbard and other work at the erstwhile Pram Factory or La Mama in Melbourne, especially in the 70s. In fact Williamson's early work like The Removalists also belongs to this counter-tradition; and as Jean-Pierre Mignon at Anthill demonstrated in the 80s it's even possible to stage The Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll in a counter-traditional way. More recently I’d point to the plays of Angus Cerini, Declan Greene or even the devised garage-theatre of The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm. There’s a muscularity about the writing and a daredevil quality to the acting and staging common to all these that’s definitely on display in the work of MKA.

In terms of Australian visual art, Dogmeat reminds me of strongly of Tucker (no pun intended) or more recently Juan Davila. Beyond this local artistic counter-tradition, it makes me think of German Expressionism across all art forms, and in terms of theatre, early Brecht and Büchner before him: Baal and Woyzek spring to mind. It's darkly comic, ugly, cynical, anarchic, violent, sexually-charged and in-your-face. Actually beneath the surface ugliness and cynicism there’s a romantic-folkloric lyrical beauty that radiates from within but (as in Büchner or Brecht) is almost indistinguishable from cheap sentimentality. Conversely, the fusion of sex and violence makes it an essentially sadistic world in which all relationships - friendship, family, age, gender, sexuality, culture, work and class – are permeated by power. Plot is fragmented and episodic; language and acting are heightened; characters are brutalized. The social-historical setting is an undefined but liminal zone on the border between urban and rural (or notionally 'civilized' and 'primitive') forms of existence. It could be anywhere, anytime; but implicitly, like all strong theatre, it’s here, now.

Interestingly, like Silo and Night Guardian, the action of Dog Meat takes place in an essentially Gothic landscape: a revival of a revival, so to speak, of medieval tropes for a New Dark Age. Like them, too, it revolves around the recurring Australian theme of lost, abused or abandoned children. Why does this theme have such resonance for our collective psyche? Perhaps because of its insistence in our national history – from our orphaned convict foundation as a colony to our treatment of the stolen generations, and from the endemic abuse of children in remote communities to the current royal commission into institutional abuse. The sadistic world of Dogmeat reflects a globalized condition of poverty, but like its artistic and dramatic precursors, it also has a uniquely Australian twist.

It’s strong meat, and not for the faint-hearted, or those expecting narrative or meaning to be delivered to them on a plate. For myself, I had the thrilling and quintessentially theatrical experience of being on the edge of my seat, continually not knowing what was going to happen next.


Dogmeat and The Night Guardian finish this Saturday; Silo closed last week.

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