Monday, 28 September 2015

Postcard from Perth 45

PTC in crisis; Black Swan, Extinction; Yirra Yaakin, The Fever and The Fret; Spare Parts, Fox 

In the last few days I’ve seen new productions by three of Perth’s surviving major and small-to-medium theatre companies. I say ‘surviving’ because Perth Theatre Company has recently lost both its artistic director and executive producer, shortly after announcing the cancellation of its two remaining shows this year precipitated by the loss of a major sponsor as well as a box-office shortfall for its preceding shows.

The crisis at PTC is in part due to the end of the mining investment boom, which has directly affected corporate support to the arts (especially by mining companies) as well as indirectly affected consumer spending (and thus audiences) in WA more than anywhere else in the country. However, it also reflects a deeper crisis in terms of the future of theatre companies across the country, and indeed internationally.

This crisis is at once economic, social, cultural and technological. How can a heavily subsidized industry like theatre survive in an era of austerity? How can the artistic identity of particular theatre companies surivive in an era of increasingly generic corporate branding and marketing? How can the profoundly localized nature of theatre companies, venues, artists and audiences survive in an era of globalisation? And how can theatre as a medium of collective presence survive in an era of increasing technological mediation and social atomisation (i.e. watching flatscreens and laptops at home)?

PTC already had its back against the wall when I moved to Perth fifteen years ago. In those days it was the personal fiefdom of founding artistic director Alan Beecher, as opposed to Black Swan’s Andrew Ross; the former’s undeniable gifts as a director (especially in small-scale contemporary work) were arguably overshadowed by the latter’s vision for a distinctively Western Australian (and particularly Aboriginal) theatre. This sense of rivalry became more pronounced after Black Swan moved into residence at the new State Theatre Centre, became the official State Theatre Company and secured permanent funding status as a Major Performing Arts Company with the Australia Council, while PTC lost its former home venue with the demolition of the Perth Playhouse, was relegated to the bowels of the State Theatre in the Studio Underground and became increasingly starved of both national and state funding.

Over the last seven years, despite Mel Cantwell’s considerable talent and vision as a director, PTC has struggled to find or communicate a consistent artistic identity. Broadly speaking, it has pitched itself as a more contemporary alternative to Black Swan; but it has essentially lacked the resources (in terms of funding and venue) to consolidate this, or to connect its grassroots base of Perth independent theatre artists (from which Mel herself emerged) with a more mainstream audience constituency. In short: Perth doesn’t have the cultural demographics of Sydney or Melbourne, and so it’s a lot harder (though equally vital) to sustain a Belvoir, Griffin or Malthouse here. Ironically, PTC somehow managed to put together an impressive looking program this year featuring no less than seven shows, and comprising a mix of curated independent work, Mel’s own work as a playwright, devisor and director, and more mainstream fare (a revival of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, starring Australian Hollywood star Jai Courtney). Unfortunately reviews and audiences for the former categories of work weren’t as strong as might have been hoped (I was overseas so didn’t see any of them), and it’s the Steinbeck that’s now been cancelled (apparently because it was tied to the corporate sponsorship that has now fallen through), along with another new work by local independent artist James Berlyn.

All eyes are now on the future and indeed the survival of the company. Here’s hoping that the funding bodies and the company’s board in their collective wisdom find a way to keep it going. For my money, Perth desperately needs an alternative mainstage company, preferably one devoted to contemporary theatre and performance, and in whatever form or organisational structure works best – artistic director-led, ensemble-based, curatorial or some combination of all three. Watch this space.


Yirra Yaakin’s The Fever and the Fret, Black Swan’s Extinction and Spare Parts’ Fox are all stories about love and death as well as dealing with broader themes of social and ecological change. In fact all three work best on the personal level despite certain thematic and conceptual weaknesses, and I found all three emotionally moving works despite some reservations about their content and execution.

Nyul Nyul/Yawuru actor, writer and film director Jub Clarc’s first play The Fever and The Fret is a homage to her grandparents who raised her. In the first half of the play, Lizzie (Ebony McGuire) lives with Iggy (Kelton Pell) and Ruby (Irma Woods) in their family home in a mining town up north during the early years of the resources boom. Lizzie’s mother is absent, her whereabouts unknown; her father is scarcely mentioned. Iggy works for the local mining company but has had a privileged education, loves poetry and has aspirations for a better life, all of which he seeks to instill in his granddaugher, who goes to the local school. The company has made him an offer on the house so that they can expand the mine; and the chief conflict in the play is between him and Ruby, who wants to keep the family home. Iggy also drinks and bets on the horses, and there is more than a suggestion of the anger, bitterness and frustration and that underlies this. There is also a background of incipient conflict at school between Lizzie and her peers, who discriminate against her because of her family situation. All of this simmers away beneath a loving and mostly peaceful domestic life presented in short vignettes, although tensions gradually build to a climax, the fallout from which we never actually witness onstage. The second half of the play takes place some years later: Iggy now has dementia, Ruby is dead, and Lizzie is now her grandfather’s carer, living with him in the new house which he presumaby bought from the sale of the old one, and which is haunted by Ruby’s ghostly presence.

The overall tone of The Fever and the Fret is gentle, low-key and valedictory. This mood is set by the writing, and supported by Kyle Morrison’s sensitive direction, warm if slightly sentimental lighting and sound designs by Chloe Ogilvie and Joe Lui, and an impressive set by Matt McVeigh wedged into the natural corner-stage configuration of the Subiaco Theatre Centre, which effectively conveys both the characters’ sense of entrapment and their capacity to make do with the given circumstances. In the first half it represents the slightly chaotic living area of the family home – periodically invaded by cascades of red dust through the ceiling – and in the second half transforms into Iggy and Irma’s cramped kitchen.

All three performances have great inner strength, even though I felt the actors struggling at times with a lack of finesse in the writing, and perhaps some occasional uncertainty about pace and energy. Kelton Pell coped best with this, great actor that he is, and also had the most complex and fully realised character, which he instinctively underplayed. Irma Woods is also a fine actor whom I love watching onstage, but she had less to work with in terms of the writing, and had to carry the bulk of the play’s emotional charge. Ebony McGuire had the hardest task of all, playing both the teenage and adult versions of an inherently less developed character, but she lit up the stage with a natural and unflagging energy.

Structurally, I found the set-up in the second half of the play much more interesting than the first half, and wondered if it couldn’t in fact have framed the entire story, with hallucinatory trickles of dust letting flashbacks of the past into Iggy’s damaged mind, as for me he was the central consciousness of the play. Nevertheless, it was an affecting night at the theatre, and rapturously received by the audience when I caught it on the final performance of the season.


Black Swan’s Extinction is a new play by prolific Melbourne playwright Hannie Rayson. Her plays are in many ways Shavian dramas, comedies or dramatic comedies of ideas (depending on the mood the play), pitting characters against each other as the vehicles or spokespeople of social or moral forces or points of view. Behind this lies a peculiarly English-language understanding of Ibsen (facilitated by Shaw himself) which emphasises naturalism, domestic space and verbal dexterity, as opposed to the more deeply psychological and symbolic layers of landscape, character, speech and action that underlie Ibsen’s work.

This tendency in Australian theatre – which is also manifest in other popular playwrights like David Williamson or Joanna Murray-Smith (their respective differences notwithstanding) – points I believe not only to our still dominant (but perhaps increasingly residual) English-language cultural heritage, but also to a more profound internal division between what might be called our intellectual and our emotional selves, and to our collective alienation from any deep local-historical connection with indigenous myths, traditions and rituals (and by ‘indigenous’ I don’t necessarily mean Aboriginal). Ibsen after all was writing against a native folkloric background of trolls, vikings, pine forests, fjords and avalanches, a primordial realm which lies beneath even the most middle-class Scandinavian drawing rooms.  Where are the Australian playwrights who have sought to plumb similar depths – or perhaps span similar chasms across internal and external geographies? Patrick White and perhaps some of the early plays of Louis Nowra spring to mind; it’s also what excites in the work of an Australian theatremaker like Barrie Kosky, regardless of the cultural provenance of his raw material. In comparison, so much mainstream Australian theatre is like watching TV (and I mean the old-style, interior-of-a-studio-set-bound TV, which itself was a small-sceen copy of the dominant mode of theatre at the time). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this – depending on the execution of course – but the limits of the form are encountered whenever larger emotions or themes are tackled.

In fact the most interesting and unexpected scene in Extinction occurs after interval, when we are suddenly (and disappointingly briefly) plunged into the forests of Cape Otway. It’s a great reveal – and very late-Ibsen – in terms of the journey of Bryan Woltjen’s excellent stage design, which otherwise frames the action inside cold, stark, artificial and impersonal interiors, which shift subtly from vet clinic to high-rise apartment to university office primarily through the sliding and shifting dimensions and height of the wide single window that provides the backdrop for all three rooms. I only wished we had stayed in the forest for the rest of the play, and that it had been allowed to infuse the action and characters with something of its elemental power. Instead, we and they returned to domestic and workplace interiors, and to an increasingly uneasy blend of drama and comedy bordering on bedroom farce that hardly seemed to do justice to the themes – life, death, extinction – that the play purported to raise.

Within these confines, cast and director do their best to keep the stakes high and navigate the sometimes contradictory demands of eco-drama, relationship comedy-drama and personal illness tragedy that the play yokes together – not altogether successfully, as they sometimes seem to be pulling in different directions. Hannah Day as the conflicted young zoologist who is also at the centre of the play’s chief romantic triangle copes best with these shifts in gear. Myles Pollard as her more single-minded environmentalist vetinarian boyfriend creates a touching if rather emotionally stunted figure whose mysterious illness seems somewhat grafted onto his character. Matt Dyktinski and Sarah McNeill in supporting roles – as the recently divorced mining executive with a somewhat implausible soft spot for the survival of the near-extinct spotted quoll, and as the (also recently divorced) conservation director who is all-too-easily susceptible to the former’s devious charms – both have a harder job navigating the inconsistencies in their characters and the more farcical elements of the plot, including an entirely implausible and arguably superfluous second romantic triangle intersecting with the first one. By the time the play reached its inconclusive conclusion, with zoologist and vet improbably reunited over live footage of a spotted quoll wirelessly transmitted to her smartphone (and projected onto the rear wall) – echoing the opening scene with its clumsy device of a robotically animated quoll making unconvincing noises on the vet’s operating table – I felt my sympathies and intelligence had been stretched beyond breaking point. In the end, neither Woltjen’s elegant set (coolly and unobtrusively lit by Trent Suidgeest and framed by a clean-edged acoustic guitar score by Ben Collins) nor the actors’ committed performances (supported by Stuart Halusz’s clear-eyed direction) could compensate for the structural weaknesses of the script and the ultimately superficial treatment of the play’s themes.


Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s new production Fox is adapted from the beautiful and heartrending children’s book written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Ron Brooks, who together also co-created one of my favourite children’s books, Old Pig. If the earlier book is unambiguously about death and loss, Fox is a more elusive but equally challenging fable about relationships. Like all great writing and art created specifically for children, it demonstrates that the mysterious inevitability of pain as the corollary of love is something that children and adults alike are capable of dealing with.

Spare Parts Associate Director Michael Barlow has directed and co-created the show in collaboration with former Artistic Director and long-term company mentor Noriko Nishimoto and choreographer Jacob Lehrer, and it's performed by three dancers inhabiting and manipulating elements of costume that consist of removable headgear and flowing pieces of silk to represent the three animal characters in the story. The eloquently minimal costumes and set are designed by Leon Hendroff, who has created a fluid and tangible world of ‘puppetry without puppets’, so to speak, that wisely avoids trying to represent the natural environment or its creatures in any literal or even consistently solid way. Unlike Inheritance, this is a symbolic and psychological response to the Australian landscape and its fauna (native and introduced) as the setting and figures of an archetypal story that has much in common with the tales of Grimm or Andersen, or even the more primordial realm of myth and dreaming. As such, it speaks across ages, generations and cultures, in a language of images that intrinsically requires little in the way of dialogue or narration. 

The aesthetic of this production is subtle: silk is the unifying fabric that binds costumes and set together. In fact there is an airy lightness about the design and performances that doesn’t quite sit for me with the earthier and harsher images and tones of the book; the same goes for the gentleness of Graham Walne’s lighting and the sweetness of Lee Buddle’s score. In short: I felt that the show avoided or softened some of the pain of the original story. This disjunction wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t also made visible and audible to the audience, as the original illustrations are projected onto a screen backdrop and the original text is reproduced in voiceover by Kyle Morrison (from Yirra Yaakin) throughout the action. I couldn’t help wondering what the show would have been like if it had been liberated from these visual and verbal references completely, as the latter seemed to compete at times with the mood of what was happening onstage. I was also doubtful about the occasional lines of dialogue and vocal sounds uttered by the dancer/puppeteers, which sometimes sounded forced and unconvincing.

In short: I had the feeling that this was a tale that could have been told purely through the movement of bodies and objects, using the strengths of the performers and scenography to maximum effect. The disjunction between forms of storytelling was especially jarring for me at the end of the show, which seemed to come to an abrupt halt with the words ‘Slowly, yippety-hop, she begins the long journey home’ and the image of the crippled magpie lost and abandoned in the vastness of the desert, while consoling music seemed to suggest an unlikely happy ending; whereas the book ends with a more ambiguous final image of the riverbank where Dog and Magpie have made their home, but with neither character visible.

Nevertheless, I found Fox the richest experience of the three productions under review. The power of the original source material and the suggestiveness of the visual design stayed with me long afterwards. Spare Parts is arguably the oldest surviving theatre company in Perth (founded in 1981, a decade before Black Swan, Yirra Yaakin, Perth Theatre Company or Barking Gecko) and one of the most distinctive in terms of its artistic history and identity (Noriko Nishimoto being the creative spirit who has accompanied or guided it throughout most of its journey). That sense of tradition is palpable onstage, but there is also a sense of the company continually evolving. Long may it continue to do so.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Postcard from Perth 44

All That Glitters/The Mars Project/WASO Brahms Festival

I’ve been back in Perth for a month now, after five months of overseas travel, research, training and development (including the unexpected end of my marriage), and have been slowly picking up the pieces of my old/new life since then. And what better place to do so than in the most remote city on the planet – a place I first moved to when I followed my ex-partner and children here after my first marriage ended fifteen years ago? It’s like having a relapse of the same old illness, returning to the same sanitorium and starting my recovery all over again – all over again. As the song says: you can check out, but you can never leave. So welcome to Postcards from Perth: Series 2. Things may get progressively darker for a while, but hang in there; there’s bound to be a plot-twist or two down the track, and hopefully some promising additions to the cast along the way.

Meanwhile, I’m pleased to say that the theatre and cultural scene here in Perth is as lively as ever. After a couple of weeks of laying low, I ventured out to The Blue Room to see The Last Great Hunt’s latest production, All That Glitters. Directed by Gita Bezard and co-devised by her with the performers (Adriane Daff, Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs) and Kathryn Osborne, the show tackles the issue of ‘our’ treatment of asylum seekers and the question of what ‘we’ can do about it. I use these pronouns (and place them in quotation marks) deliberately because the play and the director’s note in the program explicitly frame the issue and the question in these terms. ‘We’ in the first case means ‘we Australians’ – and in the second case, even more specifically, ‘this group of white privileged Australian theatre makers’.

I have to admit I have a few problems with these usages of the pronoun ‘we’, and the slippage between them. In the first case: who exactly is this ‘we’ that ‘subjects’ asylums seekers to mandatory offshore detention or ‘supports’ this cruel policy? The current Government (and one might add the Labor Party who first introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers and then raced the Coalition to the bottom in terms of processing them offshore)? Those who voted for them? Those who answered the questions framed by a given survey in a certain way? Those who actually implement the policy, from bureaucrats down to security guards? And who is this ‘we’ that purports to speak in their name? I’m sceptical about these constructed collectives, and these slippages in meaning or reference. For myself, I can speak only in my own name – that is to say, ‘for myself’, as an individual, albeit one who also belongs to various groups and communities. I can also speak about others – including politicians, voters, asylum seekers themselves, and the people who work or interact with them; I can even (why not?) speak ‘as’ them (for example by portraying them onstage); but I can’t speak for them. Moreover, who determines who ‘we’ are – we ‘white’, ‘privileged’ Australians, and more particularly we ‘white’, ‘privileged’ theatre makers? Whom do we include – and whom do we exclude – from these designated groups and collectives? What kind of racism – and other forms of prejudice, including class – are we implicitly reinforcing by doing so?

To be honest, I’m tired of these categories, and these constructs. And to be even more honest, I’m tired of these attempts to ‘do something’ through ‘our’ art. ‘We’ have been doing this (God knows, I’ve done it myself) for the last fifteen years– since the ‘Tampa’ election of 2001 at least – and ‘we’ have achieved nothing; I even wonder if ‘we’ have been making a monumental mistake by continuing to engage in a ‘conversation’ about an ‘issue’ that’s essentially been constructed by the Right side of politics in order to polarise the community, wedge the Opposition and win elections. There’s no ‘issue’, from the point of view of human rights or social justice, and no ‘conversation’ to be had. Reversing an odious policy – or even helping asylum seekers under the existing policy – isn’t about consciousness-raising; it’s about an Opposition having the courage to oppose and defeat the current Government without capitulating to its terms; and in the meantime it’s about giving as much legal, medical, psychological, spiritual and other forms of material aid as ‘we’ can, whoever ‘we’ are – laywers, doctors, counsellors, clergy and even theatremakers. Go to Nauru or Manus Island and do plays there. Hand out how-to-vote cards for the Greens. Write to your local Labor MP. But don’t waste time with hysterical hand-wringing about how your art isn’t ‘doing’ anything. There’s even something faintly obscene about this kind of onstage agonising while people offstage and offshore are dying.

In this case, the four actors refer to themselves by name (as ‘Hunter Adriane’, ‘Hunter Jeff’, ‘Hunter Arielle’ and ‘Hunter Chris’), are dressed in gold body-suits and surrounded by a glittering set of gold strip-curtains (all designed by Tessa Darcey). The ambience is relentlessly upbeat (including the lighting and sound by Joe Lui), as the Hunters set about ‘saving lives’ by staging scenes (ostensibly written for the purpose by Hunter Chris) which satirize the very class of ‘white privileged’ Australians to which they themselves belong – scenes which in turn resemble and satirize the ‘white privileged’ satirical theatre of David Williamson or Yasmina Reza. Needless to say, they fail specacularly in their attempt to save any lives (as regularly announced by a neon digital score-tally of zero on the wall behind them), despite Hunter Chris’s increasingly desperate insistence that they resort to the use of rejected scenes and other last-ditch devices. The most telling of these was a frantic tap-dance routine by Chris which reminded me of the futile ‘dance-off’ staged in protest against the recent Brandis arts funding heist. It was all very arch and ironic – and seamlessly performed – but as the show effectively ate itself, I couldn’t help wondering: to what end? As intended, it did provoke thought: not so much about the ‘issue’, as about how and why it should be staged.

In this sense, perhaps the show was a success after all. From Aeschylus’s Suppliants onwards, theatre about asylum seekers or any other ‘issue’ has always been more successful (as art, and perhaps as politics) when it told a specific story than when it has been about the ‘issue’ itself. In any case, perhaps it’s time to have a moratorium on theatre about asylum seekers for a while, and get on with the task of dealing with and representing the global and growing phenomenon of displacement in a more humane and effective way.


Will O’Mahony’s new play The Mars Project, which I saw the following week, uses a current issue or topic in the opposite way: as the springboard for a story that asks the more general question of what constitutes the value or worth of a human being or endeavour – or in the words of the play, what ‘greatness’ means. Written and directed by Will for the 3rd Year WAAPA Acting students, the play superposes three narrative layers: an imaginary version of the actual mission to colonise Mars (and the reality-TV competition which is hypothesized to finance it); the personal development movement typified by cults like Landmark Forum; and (in a intuitively brilliant move which gives the play its substance and depth) the phenomenon of autism and its treatment. The putative protagonist of the play is Wren, a contestant for the Mars Project (and game-show) and a member of a self-help group; but its real hero is her brother Sam, who suffers from severe autism. In the course of the play, Wren’s understandable and heart-rending desire to transcend her situation and free herself by leaving Earth (and her dependent brother) is contrasted with Sam’s courage in remaining and enduring as himself. In other words: the familiar postmodern ‘will to change’ is contrasted with the less often trumpeted will to stay the same and embrace one’s fate, as Nietzche put it in his doctrine of amor fati.

Will’s writing and direction were as graceful and assured as always. Dialogue is crisp and full of air; characters are lightly sketched but leave plenty of space for the actors to inhabit and flesh out; plotting and structure similarly provide the audience with the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and fill in the gaps. In keeping with this minimalist style, the staging was clean, sparse, economical and imaginative. We were seated in the round, with the actors moving around and behind us between and sometimes during scenes; and the only prop was a hula hoop which either lay on the floor or was manipulated (literally and symbolically) by the actors – most memorably for me when Sam kept it spinning elliptically around his hips while orbiting Wren like the Earth around the Sun. Finally, the direction of the actors was consistently restrained. It’s not appropriate for me to review individual performances in the context of a student production; but cast and director created a strong sense of ensemble in which each actor had room for their own idiosyncracies while inhabiting a common stylistic world. The night I saw the show there were a number of autistic people in the audience; it’s a tribute to the power of the writing, staging, direction and performances that their presence was in no way distracting, but only heightened the stakes.

Will’s previous plays have been set in somewhat fanciful, allegorical, dreamlike or dystopian worlds. Despite its title, The Mars Project is more down-to-earth, but it’s no less a thought-experiment that illuminates certain enduring (and acutely contemporary) social, psychological, philosophical and moral conundrums. At the heart of his writing it seems to me lies a fundamentally ethical question: how should I live? The deft touch with which he exposes and probes this question from one play to the next is the mark of that rare creature: a true playwright.


Finally I must report briefly on WASO’s Brahms Festival, which I attended avidly over the last two weekends. Following last years Beethoven Festival, which featured all nine symphonies within a similar two-weekend stretch, this year saw Principal Conductor Asher Fisch conduct all four Brahms Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and Double Concerto with the great violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth, and the two Piano Concertos with the fine American pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

Brahms is (and indeed saw himself as) the logical successor to Beethoven in terms of a symphonic cycle conceived in this way. Indeed he was so conscious of Beethoven’s shadow that he postponed writing his First Symphony until he was forty-three; the conductor Hans von Bulow dubbed it ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’. Certainly there’s a similarly ‘heroic’ quality and sense of dramatic tension in the music of both composers, especially the symphonies; but where harmonic, rhythmic and structural tension in Beethoven seems to express the social and psychological tension between freedom and authority, the individual and the collective, and the personal alienation experienced by the composer (no doubt excacerbated by his encroaching deafness), in Brahms a more formal and stylistic tension between classsicism and romanticism reflects an underlying conflict between what might be called the conservative and progressive sides of his musical, professional and emotional personality. Like Beethoven, Brahms never married, devoted himself almost entirely to his music, and eventually embraced the motto ‘frei aber froh’ (‘free but happy’) in contradistinction to his friend the violinist Joachim’s ‘frei aber einsam’ (‘free but lonely’). Unlike Beethoven’s mysterious ‘eternal beloved’, however, the object of Brahms’s lifelong but unfulfilled love was more well-known: Clara Schumann, the pianist and composer, and the wife of his friend and mentor Schumann, especially in the years after the latter was confined to an asylum for the insane. Indeed, it’s not hard to hear in the ardour and anguish of Brahms’s music, especially in the slow movements, a more or less continual outpouring of this conflicted, yearning and unfulfilled passion. Paradoxically this level of personal emotion finds formal expression through the loneliness and nostalgia of one who defended and developed the strictures of Viennese classicism against the prevailing tide of unfettered romanticism represented by Liszt, Wagner and Bruckner. As such, the music of Brahms speaks to traditionalists and revolutionaries alike; Schönberg for one admired Brahms’s innovations in the use of ‘developing variation’ as a structural principle.

To return to the concerts themselves: orchestra, conductor and soloists did Brahms proud. WASO continues to flourish under Fisch’s baton: led by their newly appointed concertmaster Laurence Jackson, the strings are sounding more unified and more energised from one concert series to the next; while percussion and wind sections continued to distinguish themselves, with outstanding solo work from prinicipal oboe Peter Facer and principal horn David Evans; supported by Fisch’s conducting which consistently brought out the intimate, chamber-music qualities of Brahms’s great orchestral works. For me the most impressively performed symphonies in the cycle were the sweepingly lyrical Second and the tersely tragic Fourth, while Garrick Ohlsson’s commanding interpretations of the two massive Piano Concertos were the highlights of the festival. These are really symphonies for piano and orchestra – or perhaps duets, to pursue the chamber-music analogy, since Brahms’s expansive piano writing sometimes makes the solo instrument sound like an entire orchestra, especially in the hands of a pianist as magisterial as Ohlsson.

All in all, it was a thrilling four concerts, and another triumph for WAASO and Fisch, whose contract has just been renewed for another three years.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Postcard from New York 3

Sleep No More, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Hand To God, The Flick, David Greenspan/Gertrude Stein

My final week in New York was overshadowed by the email I had received from my wife in the cinema on the Sunday, and the flurry of communications that followed over the next five days.

Without going into details: after ten years, my marriage was over, much as my previous marriage had ended fifteen years previously. Once again I was completely blindsided, although in retrospect I should have seen it coming. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. This is not the place to expand further on the immediate circumstances or the underlying causes of either separation, except to say that both were to some extent unconsciously self-engineered if not exactly self-inflicted. Now I veered from one emotion to another as the total and irrevocable nature of my current loss gradually became apparent.

In what follows, I make no effort to separate my impressions of the city itself or the theatre I saw there that week from my somewhat unhinged state. It had indeed become a hell of a town, and my vision was as clouded by shock, pain, grief and despair as one who wanders through the underworld – like Orpheus, to emerge at last alone.

In the words of Clive James’s recently published translation of Dante, which I carried with me on my travels:

How harsh and bitter that place seemed to me –
Merely to think of it renews the fear –
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possbily be worse. As you shall hear
It led to good things too, eventually.


After a sleepless night in my sweltering third-floor box room in Williamsburg, I decided to head into Manhattan and spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If nothing else, continuous access to free wi-fi would at least keep me in potential communication with my wife, from whom I hadn’t heard since tentatively replying to her still somewhat veiled email the previous day. This led to a morning of torture, as delays in the subway saw me stranded underground and in a state of mounting panic and paranoia about my marriage (all my fears being subsequently confirmed when I finally heard from her again).

When I got to the Met, its glories were imbued with a dawning sense of loss. I wandered the Greek and Roman galleries, and then the even more spectacular Ancient Egyptian wing, overwhelmed by feelings of regret, remorse and grief: how my wife would have loved these collections; how I should have asked her to come to New York with me; how we would never share such experiences again. I had taken too little care of this – and other things. And now it was too late.

Just before five o’clock – upstairs in the Italian Renaissance rooms, but unable to take in the paintings around me – I received another email from her, this time spelling things out with terrible clarity. I hastily composed a reply, attempting to bargain with her, while an amplified voice overhead announced that the museum was now closing.

Outside on the crowded steps I could no longer access wi-fi, so I dialled her number and began leaving an incoherent voicemail message, before my voice and words failed me. Then my phone battery died.

I got into a cab and began heading blindly downtown.


That night I had a ticket to see Sleep No More: the famous long-running immersive production by English company Punchdrunk at McKittrick’s Hotel. Despite my increasingly frantic state, I decided to go ahead and see the show.

This turned out to be a disastrous mistake. To be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it in any event. As the title would suggest, it’s based on Macbeth, and takes place over multiple floors in the hotel (in this respect, much like Then She Fell, reviewed in my last Postcard). Unlike that show, however, Sleep No More plays to a much larger crowd (there were at least a hundred of us the night I saw it), and is much more chaotic: the audience, left to its own devices, rapidly fragmented and followed the action, chased the actors or explored the floors, rooms and their contents at will. Moreover, every audience member was issued with a neutral mask, which had the effect of encouraging a level of display and irresponsibility which I found irritating, as people pushed past each other, interposed themselves as part of the action and got in the way of the actors. I had the impression that there was an in-crowd of afficionados who came regularly in order to hog the limelight and show off in front of the other spectators.

Conversely, unlike Then She Fell or other more properly interactive works, the audience didn’t seem to have any designated role, and were largely ignored by the performers. In other words, it could have all happened without us; there was a kind of conventional ‘fourth wall’, which seemed to cut through the heart of the work and disconnect us from what we were watching. I found this lack of connection frustrating, and felt it added to the level of hyperactivity among certain members of the crowd.

Beyond this, the performances and choreography were much less impressive than Then She Fell, and in comparison with the latter the whole production had less to say. In short, the immersive form was more like a gimmick that had been imposed on the ghost of Shakespeare’s play – whose plot, scenes and characters were diluted to the point of cliché. The overall atmosphere, mood and design also felt clichéd: a kind of contrived decadent 1920s world that, again, seemed to have no intrinsic connection with the material.

After an hour of mindless to-ing and fro-ing in search of something interesting to watch, I’d had enough. I was also feeling increasingly trapped in my own internal immersive nightmare. It took me another fifteen minutes to find my way back to the floor I’d entered from and escape. I re-entered the underworld of the subway, and made my way back to my box room in Williamsburg, where another sleepless night awaited me.


The next morning there was another painfully honest email from my wife. I replied straight away, and we arranged to meet in London on the weekend to talk things through. Then I went out for a walk, found a park and lay down under the trees, letting my body and mind catch up with the events of the past two days.

That night for a treat I took myself out to see Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall, on tour after their recent album Cheek to Cheek. They delivered a solid set of jazz, swing, lounge and cabaret standards from the 20s to the 60s, backed by two separate bands and a shared orchestra. At 88, Bennett ruled the stage like an old king, relaxed and comfortable but still in great voice and more than capable of belting it out, especially in the big solo numbers, the lion’s share of which fell to him. In this context, Gaga somewhat uncharacteristically played second fiddle, but still held her own as a Broadway-trained baby, shifting as effortlessly from idiom to idiom as she did from frock to frock during Bennett’s solos. I let the onslaught of sentiment wash over me, enjoyed the grandiose sense of occasion, and admired the effortless artistry and stylishness of two very different but eminently compatible master-performers. We shall not see their like again.


Wednesday proved more challenging again, emotionally and theatrically. Once more I braved the subway to midtown Manahttan, to see a matinee of Hand to God: a Broadway revival at The Booth Theatre of Robert Askins’s dazzling new play, which was originally produced at The Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011. As with Fun Home, this was a revival of the original off-Broadway production, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and featuring a central tour-de-force from Steven Boyer as the nerdy teenager Jason and his foulmouthed handpuppet alter-ego Tyrone, who apparently becomes possessed by the devil, leading to scenes of mounting chaos – sexual, aggressive and finally bordering on the psychotic and even supernatural.

To an even greater degree than Fun Home or Hedwig, Hand to God is both a challenge and a tribute to Broadway’s capacity to confront Middle America. Mostly set in a Christian puppetry workshop in a school basement room in Texas, the play mocks not only religious and cultural hypocrisy but the entire human project to subdue, civilize or demonize our shadow-selves. In short: it gradually transforms from being a hilarious black comedy to a terrifying satire of truly Swiftian proportions.

Boyer’s facility with the puppet and his capacity to play two opposing characters (or dual aspects of the same personality) simultaneously had me spellbound – and finally covering my eyes in horror during a final scene of frenzied mayhem, when Jason took a hammer to his own right hand in an attempt to save himself and others from its increasingly deranged clutches. This was preceded by a graphic handpuppet-sex-scene between him and his equally mild-mannered girfriend (wearing her own insatiable handpuppet for the occasion), which the audience found side-splitting but I found almost unbearable to watch, now firmly in the grip of my own demons.

I sat in the auditorium shaking until everyone else had left, then stumbled out into the crowded streets. I had nowhere to go, but I couldn’t face the maelstrom of people and traffic, so I headed back into the maw of the subway, feeling like a drowning man being dragged down by the undertow.

I finally emerged again on the Lower West Side in the more peaceful ambience of Greenwich Village, not far from a small off-Broadway venue where I had a ticket to see another play a few hours later – although at this point I couldn’t imagine ever setting foot inside another theatre again.  Instinctively I headed for a park in Washington Square; as I entered its green haven, the tears came, and I sank down onto a lawn under the trees. People were sitting around me on the grass listening to a jazz trio busking nearby; no one seemed disturbed by the man weeping uncontrollably in their midst. It felt like a river that would never run dry; words, images and thoughts dissolved in the flow of feelings. Eventually this too came to an end, and I stopped crying, got up, dropped a five-dollar note into the trumpet-player’s instrument case, and walked off to find something to eat before the show. Life goes on.


The play I saw that night at the intimate Barrow Street Theater was a sweetly subtle relief after the lurid horror show of Hand to God. Moreover, I was in Greenwich Village, and off-Broadway at last; it was almost like being in Carlton or Fitzroy, and going to a familiar Melbourne independent theatre venue like La Mama or Eleventh Hour.

Annie Baker’s The Flick was first staged at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, and won the Pulitzer Prize last year. The remount at the Barrow featured the same cast (Alex Hanna, Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten), designer (David Zinn) and director (Sam Gold), whose similarly understated approach to Fun Home distinguished him as one of that rare breed of directors who put their playwrights and actors ahead of their own creative egos.

Indeed, direction, writing and performances in The Flick were so understated that I felt like I could have been watching an off-Broadway equivalent to Tsai Ming-liang’s arch, slow-burning Taiwanese masterpiece of minimalist cinema Goodbye Dragon Inn, which like Baker’s play is set in a run-down old movie house. Unlike Tsai’s film however – the continuous action (or inaction) of which is set in a cinema in Tapei during its last 90-minute screening, during which it follows various patrons and employees in and out of the auditorum and elsewhere around the building, using long static shots and almost no dialogue – The Flick is set in a cinema in Massachusetts, consists of a discontinuous series of long and largely static scenes (almost all of which take place inside the auditorium after various movie screenings), focuses on just three characters (who are all employees), and is all talk (albeit of the most deadpan and desultory kind). Behind both works of course lurks The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s haunting cinematic ode to small-town life, growing up, nostalgia and indeed cinema itself – as crystallized in the form of the local independent, single-screen movie house, typically specializing in cult, arthouse or recent release re-runs. In the case of The Flick, this image was simply but brilliantly realised in Zinn’s design by putting a hyperrealistic auditorium onstage with rows of seats facing the theatre audience so that the fourth wall became a virtual movie screen.

Perhaps there’s something about the vanishing institution of the movie house, the medium of the moving image, and even the materiality of film itself that uniquely suits the theme of time’s passing as their privileged subject-matter. If so, Annie Baker’s play and Sam Gold’s production (the two seem inseparable) seize on this elective affinity between cinema and time, and bend it towards their own highly original theatrical ends. Certainly the studiously slow pace of this production apparently divided audiences and critics alike during its previous run. The first act alone ran for ninety minutes; the entire show including interval came down at just over three hours; but the real challenge and beauty of play and production lay in their quietly observational tone. For me however there was nothing gratuitious or enervating about this measured pace and tone, which perfectly captured the situation of three lonely people suffering from a very contemporary form of melancholia and trying to connect with each other in the context of a workplace and an economy that seemed to be relentlessly dissolving all traditional forms of connection, solidarity, value or meaning – a condition which the sociologist Durkheim analysed in the late 19th century under the concept of ‘anomie’, particularly in his study of suicide.

No doubt my own situation made me even more receptive to the mood of this work. Not that it made me suicidal: on the contrary I found it strangely restorative after the hallucinatory vortex of Hand to God. Paradoxically, it gave me a context for the loss of connection, solidarity, value or meaning which I was currently experiencing in the dissolution of my marriage, especially in the heightened circumstances in which I found myself – doubly alone, so to speak, and infinitely isolated in this vast unfamilar city where I knew almost no-one.

After the madness of the afternoon, I went home calmly that evening; but for the third night running, I still couldn’t sleep. The demons raised by Hand to God continued to torment me.


The next day, there was another sad but resolute email from my wife. I responded as best I could, bowing to the inevitable. Then I headed back into Greenwich Village and met up with the one friend I had in New York, an Australian actor who’d lived there for the last ten years. She sized me up, then announced that she’d meet me again that evening outside the theatre where she was performing and give me some of her husband’s sleeping pills. She also insisted that I move out of my box room in Williamsburg the next morning and spend the day at her apartment on the Lower East Side before I flew out of New York that night to meet my wife in London the following day.

We said goodbye, she left to pick up her son from school, and I went back to Washington Square Park and listened to the same jazz trio under the trees. A couple of hours later I met my friend outside the theatre a few blocks away and collected the sleeping pills as instructed. Then I walked a few blocks further through the heart of the downtown off-Broadway district to the Connelly Theater in the East Village, where Target Margin Theater were presenting a Gertrude Stein season. Tonight’s offering was Composition…Master Pieces…Identity: two lectures and a poem, all written by Stein, and presented by off-Broadway legend David Greenspan.

‘Composition as Explanation’ was a lecture given by Stein in 1926 about the paradoxical relationship between artists and their era. Greenspan recited it from memory, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and pants, and sitting in a chair. His somewhat feline delivery and demeanour made no attempt to imitate Stein, but he held me captivated, even as my mind alternately wrestled and danced with her words.

Stein’s language typically combines a kind of abstract prose-poetry, biting wit, passages of lucid analysis and what might clinically be termed ‘perseveration’ – in this case the repetition of words and phrases beyond their apparent terms of reference, relevance, appropriateness, logic or even grammar. The opening sentences of the lecture, for example, read as follows (the entire text can easily be found on the internet):

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

If this looks dry and even opaque, Greenspan’s playful delivery brought out shades of meaning and musicality that had me hanging not just on every word but every inflection and flicker of expression, from his voice to his face and hands.

The second piece, ‘What Are Master-Pieces, and Why are There So Few of Them?’, was a lecture dating from 1936, and delving more deeply into the psychology of creation, and in particular what might be called the antinomy between artistic creation and personal identity. As a striking passage from the lecture has it:

The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation.

Greenspan simply read this lecture seated behind a table. As he read, though, the spirit of Stein and her words began to inhabit and intoxicate me, and I felt increasingly liberated – from myself and at least potentially from my own creative and psychological habits. I had a sense too of Stein as the great enabler, to whom the greatest Modernist writers and painters– from Pound to Picasso – were so singularly drawn. 

The final piece, ‘Identity – A Poem’, also from 1936, was the only one actually written for theatrical performance (although of course lectures are also performances of a kind). Broken up into a series of randomly numbered ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’, it continued and developed the themes of the earlier lecture, including the repeated refrain: ‘I am I because my little dog knows me.’

This time Greenspan was on his feet, his whole body and voice fully animated, like a kind of marionette possessed by the soul of Stein herself. There was still not the slightest trace of impersonation or even ‘acting’, at least in the sense of ‘characterisation’; but I felt in the presence of a master performer who had timed the formal development of the show and the progressive revelation of his craft to perfection.

I found this final work, and the accumulated impact of the whole evening, exhilarating and deeply moving. The final ‘scenes’ and lines of ‘Identity’ spoke to me very directly, not just about creativity, but about life’s transitions:

Act 1 Scene 1.

The necessity of ending is not the necessity of beginning.

Chorus: How finely that is said.

Scene II.

An end of a play is not the end of a day.

Scene IV.

After giving.


With those abrupt and enigmatic last words, the performance itself was over; but as I walked out onto East 4th Street, I had the glimmer of a sense that things might not be over for me, if I could find the need to begin again.

Back in my box room in Williamsburg, I took a sleeping pill and blessed my friend. Tonight I would sleep; there would be no demons. Tomorrow I would pack my things, take a cab across Williamsburg Bridge to her apartment, and spend the day there, recuperating. And tomorrow night I would leave New York – wonderful town, helluva town – and fly across the Atlantic to face my wife, and my future.


Humph will be resuming his regular Postcards from Perth as of next week.