Thursday, 26 February 2015

Postcard from Perth 43

Perth Festival: Madama Butterfly, I Wish I Was Lonely, Ubu and the Truth Commission; Perth Fringe World, The Epicene Butcher, A Circle of Buzzards, Moving On Inc, The Defence

This is going to sound shamelessly retro of me, but the ENO/Met Opera/Lithuanian National Opera/WA Opera co-production of Madama Butterfly directed by the late Anthony Minghella is arguably the jewel in the crown of Jonathan Holloway’s final Perth Festival, at least from what I've seen so far. I was there on opening night in the crumbling Edwardian Baroque grandeur of The Maj and had the best night I can remember having at the opera anywhere for some time.

This famous production was first seen at the ENO ten years ago and has handsomely stood the test of time. In fact it’s one of those rare productions that transcends period ‘setting’ and is neither narrowly ‘traditional’ nor ostentatiously ‘contemporary’. Instead it has a spectacularly minimalist aesthetic that draws heavily on Japanese stage traditions – including the use of saturated lighting, negative space, sliding screens, stylized costumes, highly formalised blocking and movement, bunraku puppets in key non-singing roles, and a team of black-garbed and veiled animateurs and dancers who are present throughout the action operating the puppets, screens and other elements of the set and design. All this is juxtaposed with the (emotionally and coloristically) saturated late-Romanticism of Puccini’s score and the verismo naturalism of Illica and Giacosa’s libretto about an American naval officer who marries and then abandons a fifteen-year old Japanese geisha in Nagasaki. The net effect is both a searing critique of colonialism and a ritualized tragedy of female sacrifice that had me by the throat from start to finish, and left me feeling as devastated as Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. As my companion said afterwards: ‘I didn’t want it to end.’

This Festival remount also features the production’s original conductor David Parry and its original Butterfly Mary Plazas. Parry’s take on the score is lingering and lush without sacrificing drama or transparency, highlighting Puccini’s Japanese ‘cultural appropriations’ and making me think more than once of the parallel late-Romantic chromaticism of Wagner (especially the morbid eroticism of Tristan, with which Butterfly has a surprising amount in common). WASO played superbly from the bustling opening orchestral fugue to the shocking question-mark of the crashing final inverted chord; special mention goes to the yearning, full-throated playing of principal oboe Peter Facer (I presume – no listings in the program).

Plazas was mesmerizing: delicate but (when necessary) forceful and even sharply etched in voice. At times she reminded me of the great Renata Scotto (whom another famous Cio-Cio San, Maria Callas, once gave a standing ovation in defiance of hecklers). This was a mature Butterfly who knew her own mind and was fully conscious of her fate: the maturity of the singer’s voice, face and characterisation lending added pathos to her tiny body and deliberately doll-like gestures. American tenor Adam Diegel was a more than adequate foil as the insouciant Pinkerton, with a huge voice and height to match, looming over his child-bride; but also capable of vocal and physical tenderness, which only added to the tragedy. The great Australian baritone Jonathan Summers lent subtlety and wisdom to the role of Sharpless, the US Consul: again, no easy caricature here, but a real person caught up in the catastrophe. And in the key role of Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, Met stalwart Maria Zifchak lent her rich, golden mezzo to what is perhaps the core relationship in the opera.

And then, there’s the Act Two reveal for which this production is probably most famous: the bunraku puppet representing Butterfly and Pinkerton’s young son. Superbly manipulated by three puppeteers from contemporary UK company Blind Summit Theatre (and convincingly interacted with and cradled by Plazas) this added a whole other dimension to the tragedy: not only because of the implicit reference to Japanese theatre, culture and forms of representation; but because of the way we project emotionally onto a puppet, especially one whose character is essentially innocent, helpless, speechless and indeed in every sense voiceless.

Minghella’s interest in animation goes back at least as far as his work as a writer/director with puppet-master Bill Henson on the fondly remembered TV series of dramatized folk tales The Storyteller; and indeed Butterfly itself is a kind of modern operatic folk-tale. Meanwhile the films for which he is most widely known – Truly Madly Deeply, The English Patient and even The Talented Mr Ripley – all deal with various species of morbid and even fatal love, which is the very stuff of this (and perhaps all) opera.

This is a stunningly integrated production – and I’ve barely mentioned the glorious costumes by fashion designer Han Feng, strikingly minimalist set by Michael Levine, intense lighting by Peter Mumford and intricate choreography by Carolyn Choa, all of which engaged in a subtle dialogue between Japanese and Western traditions. I’ve rarely had such a complete experience of all the elements of opera coming together in this way. As my guest (a relative opera-novice) said at interval: ‘Now I get it!’


A considerably less spectacular but entertaining and thoughtful work was I Wish I Was Lonely by UK writer-peformers Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe, directed by Francesca Beard, which I saw last Sunday afternoon in the bright white surrounds of Rehearsal Room 2 at the State Theatre Centre. It’s an interactive work for an intimate audience (there were about 40 of us) involving our own mobile phones.

Actually I was expecting (and slightly dreading) a more private journey involving my phone, and perhaps a more innovate use of mobile technology. Instead it was mostly a group-experience (apart from the odd pairing-off exercise or personal call taken or received), and for the most part a somewhat didactic if amiable performance-lecture about the pros and cons of mobiles as opposed to face-to-face connection, including the subtle differences between voice and text as forms of ‘connectivity’.

Hannah is a poet, and Chris a theatremaker, and neither give the impression of being a ‘digital native’. As a result I found myself broadly sympathetic but hardly challenged by what they had to say. In fact there was a lot of ‘saying’ and not a lot of ‘doing’ (at least in the sense of physical or symbolic action, as opposed to playing with our phones) in this show. To be sure, we ‘did’ some talking and texting; but I felt hungry for a more creative form of interaction.

The most interesting moments for me occurred when one of the performers and a member of the audience re-enacted a mobile conversation with a suicidal and long-forgotten acquaintance; and conversely when the other performer recalled texting the news that she’d had a miscarriage. These were moments when it felt like something real was happening (or being avoided, as the case may be). I also enjoyed making prolonged silent eye-contact with a fellow audience member (as our final exercise) and then arranging to meet up the next day for a coffee (without using our mobiles). As I've noted before, interactive performance often has a pleasing afterglow.


The third Perth Festival show I’ve seen this week was a disappointment: William Kentridge’s Ubu and The Truth Commission. I’m a huge admirer of Kentridge as a visual artist (see my review of his installation The Refusal of Time at PICA last year). He’s a master of collage who successfully incorporates performance (mostly on film) into his multimedia work and, conversely, creates startling visual art in a performance context, including set designs, costumes, props, puppets and animated projections. However Ubu demonstrated that this doesn’t necessarily make him a successful theatre director or playwright, any more than Picasso was with his Four Little Girls. 

In fact it’s telling that a key influence on both works is surrealism: a movement which employed collage in order to disrupt the senses, disturb the boundaries of artistic and social form and liberate the language of dreams. This works marvellously within the confines of visual art and installation, when we’re free to come and go, position ourselves in space and time and make our own connections – and in particular when language (written or recorded) plays a subordinate role to images: all of which applied to a work like The Refusal of Time. 

In the case of Ubu and the Truth Commission, however, images are subordinated to speech, narrative and political content: in particular, the crimes of apartheid, harrowing documentary footage from that era, and verbatim testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was set up in 1995 by the new post-apartheid government (interestingly Kentridge’s title occludes the term ‘reconciliation’, as if to question its applicability or even possibility in this case).

The irony is that Kentridge has yoked this documentary content to Jarry’s proto-surrealist Ubu plays: proto-surrealist precisely because they invoke psychological archetypes (in particular the characters of Father or ‘King’ Ubu and his wife Mother Ubu) whose physical appetites and emotional impulses exceeded the bounds of sense. They are archetypes of power, to be sure, but the world they inhabit (like the surrealist revolution they portend) is that of the body itself rather than the body-politic. As such, they don’t lend themselves to a specific political context like South Africa under apartheid, which on the contrary was all about the fascism of control.

As a result, the overacted Ubu scenes with their repetitive exchanges of marital discord felt awkward and tedious, in contrast with the Truth Commission scenes, where conversely I felt uncomfortable about the verbatim recounting of horror stories using puppets (striking as these were to look at). Meanwhile, the intervening scenes featuring Ubu as a brutal South African tyrant suffered from the device of having the actor attempt to interact with puppet animals (who were generally more interesting to watch, but ineffectually voiced by the non-actor puppeteers).

By far the most effective sequences, in fact, were the projected animated drawings, which demonstrated Kentridge’s graphic artistry at its most inspired, and were mercifully free of language or commentary, despite their obvious political content. In fact I could have happily watched the half-hour or so of continuous animation on a loop in a gallery, or even a theatre, and been absorbed and moved by the content and the artistry. The same, sadly, could not be said of the puppetry or the acting.

I left Ubu and the Truth Commission feeling, once again, that the urge to hybridize  frequently begets monsters. I can watch live performers and puppets onstage at the same time in Butterfly because the juxtaposition has meaning in the context of the opera itself (and is integrated by Puccini’s music and Minghella’s staging). In short: all the elements were engaged in telling the same story, and all shared the same medium of theatrical space and time. In the case of Ubu the confusion of acting, puppetry, animated film, documentary footage, surrealist and verbatim theatre failed to gel; and I was struck by the fact that the stage is a ruthless medium when it comes to holding our attention.


Better late than never: to close this Postcard, here’s my final roundup of shows at Perth Fringe World, which ended last weekend.

Last Tuesday I caught The Epicene Butcher at The Stables followed by A Circle of Buzzards at PICA. Epicene is a two-hander by South African company Daddy’s Little Secret, who also presented the acclaimed Amateur Hour at Fringe World this year. Basically it’s a vaudeville act based on a form of Japanese street theatre called kamishbai, which involves a playful storyteller (Emma Kahn) using a sliding vertical stack of hand-painted boards to illustrate the stories, like tactile cartoons. She’s accompanied by a mute and sultry assistant, Chalk Boy (Glen Biderman Pam), in a pleasing inversion of the usual gender stereotypes.

The stories ranged from traditional folk-tale or Zen koan to contemporary manga-porn. The title-story was the most impressive: a gripping tale of tyranny and cannibalism told in rhyming couplets with spectacular illustrations. This was followed by a haunting wordless kamishabi set during the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. After this, I felt the last two stories – one about the life of Nelson Mandela, the other set in the world of the Mario Bros video game – fell a little flat. Somehow the attempt to bridge the gap between Japanese and South African (or even globalised) culture was less interesting than the piquant juxtaposition between the performers and their use (and evident love) of an exotic and unfamiliar form.


After this generally pleasing hors-d’oeuvre, A Circle of Buzzards was heavier main fare. In fact I think it was heavier than it needed to be. Perth playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff’s three-hander is set in a bar in Spain, but the characters are Australian; otherwise nothing is what it seems. Moncrieff’s dialogue reminded me of Pinter in its elliptical menace, but I was unconvinced by the exotic trappings and spiritual angst, which reminded me more of Graham Greene. I was also distracted by the overall tone of the performances and the production, which seemed overplayed and misjudged. Director Joe Lui usually has a surer hand than this. In this case, I think he was misled by the contradictions of the play itself: too much Graham Greene, perhaps, and too little Pinter – in whose more abstract, underplayed world I felt the heart of the play was located, rather than a bar in Spain.


On Saturday I was back at Fringe World for another double-feature at The Blue Room. Moving On Inc is an impressive debut by writer-director Mikela Westall, with engaging and affecting performances from Harriet Gordon-Andersen, Barnaby Pollock and Nicola Bartlett. It’s essentially a road-movie with a ghost-story twist; in fact there’s more than one twist in the road, so to speak, and towards the end I felt perhaps we’d turned one corner too many; but until then, I was consistently held and (mostly) convinced by the set-up and the successive reveals. Will Slade once again provided a well-judged and unobtrusive but moody sound-design; Joe Lui lit proceedings artfully; there was a refreshing absence of set; and dramaturg Will O’Mahony’s own writer-directorly aesthetic (in particular his recent play Great White, in which Mikela performed) lurked in the background but didn’t overshadow things. This play deserves a remount (and perhaps one more rewrite). I look forward to seeing what Mikela and her company The Lost Boys come up with next.


My final Fringe show was perhaps the most satisfying of all, at least in terms of sheer aesthetic and political provocation. Sydney writer-director Chris Dunstan’s The Defence begins as a self-parodying adaptation of Strindberg’s autobiographical novel The Defence of a Fool. This post-modern wrapping (which includes rapping, as well as copious male nudity, cross dressing, gaffer tape and a false moustache) is entertaining enough; but ten minutes in there’s a meta-theatrical reveal, the lights are brought up, the ‘director’ interrupts the two ‘actors’, and we’re plunged into a hilarious and nightmarish rehearsal scenario in which a clichéd critique of Strindberg’s misogyny gives way to a cutting satire on the misogyny of contemporary auteur-director’s theatre.

Superbly judged performances by co-writer Catherine McNamara, Brett Johnson and Douglas Niebling nailed it for me, supported by skilful (and apt) AV and sound designs by Alex Perritt and Kirby Medway. It all came flooding back to me, in hideous technicolour: the oppressive camaraderie between young male directors and young male actors; the dismissive contempt for playwrights and plays; and the abuse of women (and performers) as props for a megalomaniacal vision.

I’m not sure how a work like this comes across to a non-industry audience – or in a town like Perth, which is less afflicted by the auteur-director’s disease than Sydney or Melbourne. Ironically, most independent theatre in Perth consists of original new local plays rather than adaptations of classics; and most mainstage productions here (of new works and classics) are played straight rather than given a directorial makeover. Indeed, many in the audience might thrill to the mugging of Strindberg which The Defence initially stages and then counter-attacks. But many more, I hope, would recognize the show’s real target: the politics of the making of art, and workplaces generally, rather than the alleged misogyny of Strindberg and his plays.

I found The Defence a dazzling work of what might be called ‘post-auteurial-director’s theatre’ – and also incidentally a much more successful and authentic version of what David Ives pretends to do with Venus in Fur (and Sacher-Masoch) on behalf of what purports to be a more enlightened perspective. In fact, the latter is little more than a ‘post-feminist’ strip-tease, whereas The Defence strikes a blow on behalf of Strindberg, women, actors and genuinely provocative theatre.


This Postcard will be the last from Perth for some time, as next week Humph embarks on a 5-month overseas odyssey to the UK, Europe and the USA, courtesy of a Creative Development Fellowship grant from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. Stayed tuned though for Postcards from various destinations in the coming months, reporting and reflecting on theatre and workshops in London, Glasgow, Orkney, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and New York. Ciao for now. HB.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Postcard from Perth 42

Perth Festival Week 1

The Giants/Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby

I’m writing and sending this Postcard from Rottnest Island: Perth’s most iconic holiday resort, former Aboriginal prison and prisoner-of-war camp for German and ‘Austro-Slavic’ enemy aliens during the First World War, just half an hour’s ferry-ride from Fremantle. Tourists and locals cycle up and down the car-free roads through the original settlement and around the island; yachties berth off Longreach or Thompson’s Bay and come ashore to play golf or drink at the Rottnest Hotel; seagulls, ravens and quokkas (the diminutive local hopping marsupials) forage and feast on the detritus; and the wind soughs through the casuarinas and speaks of sorrows, crimes and atrocities past. It’s a haunting and haunted place: part playground, part memorial; a paradigm in so many ways for the nation as a whole.

Back on the mainland, Fringe World is in its final week, and the Perth International Festival is upon us. I’m going to review my final Fringe experiences in my next Postcard; in this one, I want to review my opening Festival weekend.

Rottnest would have been an interesting location for The Incredible and Phenomenal Journey of The Giants to the Streets of Perth: the free Festival opening act that occupied Perth CBD last Friday–Sunday and represents departing Festival director Jonathan Holloway’s parting gift to the city (with the help of a few last-minute donors). The Giants themselves are a species of Brobdingnagian marionettes created and operated by the members of Nantes-based street theatre company Royal de Luxe – and the collective brainchildren of its founder, author-director Jean-Luc Courcoult. Two of the Giants – a Deep Sea Diver and a Little Girl – visited Perth and walked the streets for three days along with an entourage of red velvet-garbed, vaguely eighteenth-century soi-disant ‘Lilliputians’, assisted by a further host of local volunteers.

Beyond the Swiftian trappings, there was little evidence of satire. Instead, the event was billed as ‘a commemoration of the centenary of Anzac’; yoked to the sentimental ‘true’ story of a little girl in the South-West town of Albany who was allegedly the last person to farewell the troops departing for the holocaust of the First World War; and accompanied by a synthetic fairy tale penned by Courcoult himself about another Little Girl who lives with a South-West Aborginal community and summons a Deep Sea Diver to Perth. All these provided a (for me) somewhat confused, contrived and opportunistic narrative context for the event itself, which involved a three-day itinerary through the streets between Perth Station and the Swan River foreshore, culminating in an elaborate welcome to country ceremony and followed by a departure by boat down the river to Fremantle. Background, story and itinerary (including times and locations for various events and road closures) were detailed on the Festival website and Facebook page, along with variously helpful suggestions about what to see and do.

My daughter and I met at Perth Station on Saturday morning to see the Diver ‘wake up’. As it turned out, the event was delayed by two hours (as notified on Facebook for those who use or had checked it) but huge crowds had already converged on the Horseshoe Bridge over the railway line and below on Wellington St outside the station where the Diver lay. We couldn’t see him from the bridge through the crowd, but it was possible to approach him from below, as most people seemed mainly interested in taking photos on their smartphones and then moving on. He was a beautiful and haunting puppet up close – especially the carved face visible through the visor of the diver’s helmet. I was reminded of the J.G.Ballard short story ‘The Drowned Giant’ about a garguantuan corpse mysteriously washed up on a beach who becomes a short-lived popular sensation but is eventually forgotten. In other words, I made my own story, and my own connections. Then my daughter and I decided to head through the CBD to see The Little Girl at Langley Park on the foreshore.

The walk through this part of city was an exotic experience in itself for me (as the CBD is mostly devoid of life, let alone culture) and full of anticipation. We were following a steady stream of fellow onlookers, and I felt briefly like I was in one of my favourite giant monster/disaster movies: King Kong, perhaps, or more recently, The Host or Cloverfield. My heart sank, however, as we descended Hill St towards Langley Park, and a cheesy electronic beat filled my ears. Sure enough, an amplified onstage band provided a deafening soundtrack, which instantly destroyed any sense of spontaneity, reality or magic. A huge crowd filled the park and surrounding street, full of bored children, irritable parent and weary pensioners. We joined those on the periphery, who were either struggling to see, staring at mobile devices or already walking away in search of new distractions. The Little Girl was visible in the distance, half-enclosed by a mobile cage on which red velvet Lilliputians perched and industriously manipulated her. Even from a distance, she looked beautiful – and fluidly articulated – but (to me) tragically confined and conditioned by her surroundings. Water squirted from the roof of the cage and she dutifully had a (fully clothed) shower while music blared and the crowd stared; my mind went to another favourite horror movie, Carrie, and I briefly imagined a crowd-annihilating apocalypse before we turned away and headed back to Northbridge for a decent coffee and (comparative) civilization.

By the time we’d had breakfast, the Diver had woken up: but the crowds around the station were now so thick it was impossible to get anywhere or see anything, and in any case all available routes through or around the station itself had been blocked off by Perth Transit guards. My daughter and I said farewell, and I made my way past the crowds and the guards back to the platforms in order to catch the next train home to Fremantle. As I paused at the turnstile on the overpass before stepping through to the escalator and heading back down to the platform, I glanced through one of the station windows and had the experience I’d been hoping for all day: a random glimpse of the Diver’s face as he passed in the street outside. It was like seeing King Kong through the windows of the train on the Brooklyn Bridge just before he derails it in the original film. Giant and I exchanged sympathetic glances, and went our separate ways.

On the train home, I watched someone sharing selfies with a fellow passenger, and reflected on the generic confusion between street theatre, performance art and manipulated populism. It reminded me of blockbuster exhibitions in galleries and museums: a confusion which is also one between quantitative and qualitative notions of ‘success’. According to one article on ArtsHub, 1.4 million people (almost three quarters of the population of Perth) visited The Giants over the whole three days (though it doesn’t say how this was measured). The question is: what did they actually experience, beyond sharing selfies on the train home?

In sum: I loved the Giants themselves, but hated the context, and the event. Narrative, itinerary and staging all felt like a (necessarily failed) attempt to identify, situate and control things – in particular, the potential experience of letting the Giants roam free, and freely encountering and making sense of them. Of course the logistical challenges are immense, and it’s easy to be contrarian; but I couldn’t help wondering what the experience would be like if traffic was blocked off from the whole area for three days (rather than according to a staged and timed itinerary); the Giants were unleashed; and we were free to visit and wander at will without knowing when and where they might appear (rather than gathering in crowds at appointed places and times). It wouldn’t even have to be the featureless, generic Perth CBD: a site like Rottnest, or even King’s Park, with its vast stretches of native forest, lawns, lakes, playgrounds and (scarcely used) roads, would be a magical place to play hide-and-seek with the Giants – and one uniquely distinctive to Perth, its history and natural environment. Of course this would involve a different approach to making and touring work or programming festivals : one that responded to place and community rather than imposing artistic or curatorial narratives.


The day after my visit to The Giants, I was back in the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre for the Royal Court/Lisa Dwan production of Beckett’s three late solo works Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, performed by Irish actor Lisa Dwan and directed by longtime Beckett stalwart Walter Asmus. The plays were written in the 70s for Beckett’s stage muse Billie Whitelaw, and I dimly remember being enthralled by seeing her in Footfalls and Rockaby in the intimate confines of the Universal Theatre in Melbourne in the early 1980s. I saw Not I in a larger proscenium arch theatre (possibly Russell Street or The Atheneum) in Melbourne around the same time, but I can’t remember if it was Billie Whitelaw; all I recall is a disembodied talking mouth suspended in darkness.

Perhaps this is the moment to say straight out that for me Beckett, and before him Chekhov and Brecht, are the key Western playwrights of the last century; after them comes Artaud, but he’s already no longer a playwright so much as a destroyer of language and representation in the name of a ‘pure theatre’ which is perhaps an impossible task but nonetheless haunts the artform like its own death from then on. Last stop Beckett, then, before the train heads into the unknown – or perhaps ‘The Unnameable’, to quote the title of his final novel, which ends with the famous last words: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

Watching these three plays again I was struck above all by Beckett’s signature contribution to the history of both literature and theatre at the point where the former discovers post-narrative fiction and the latter post-dramatic performance, without yet abandoning character, situation or indeed figural representation. Even more specifically: Beckett’s theatre is at once the theatrical consequence of literary modernism (and as such a theatre of pure language) and silent cinema (and as such a theatre of pure image): James Joyce and Buster Keaton are its unlikely pair of patron saints. Everyone who thinks of Beckett thinks of images: a disembodied mouth; a woman buried in sand, first up to her waist, then up her neck; two tramps waiting beside a tree for someone who doesn’t arrive, twice; a blind man in a wheelchair who can’t stand up, tormenting a man who can’t sit down, and an old man and woman in rubbish bins; a man speaking into a tape recorder, pausing, rewinding, playing and then recording himself again. Then one thinks of a peculiar use of language: gnomic, halting, increasingly abstract, never seeming to reach the point, repeating itself with minimal variations, and endlessly coming back to a few central themes: futility, bodily functions and the inevitability of death. It’s hearbreakingly sad, relentlessly bleak, bitterly funny and (to me anyway) exquisitely beautiful.

There was a palpable sense of anxiety amongst the mostly well-heeled middle class Perth Festival audience in the Studio Underground before the show began. This only increased when an usher stepped forward and announced that the performance would take place in total blackout with the exit lights covered, and would last for sixty minutes with no interval but two short pauses of up to five minutes during which we would not be able to leave. Then the lights dimmed and that mouth appeared: surprisingly far away, like an indistinctly flickering star at the end of a long tunnel.

Not I is a third-person monologue, which essentially recollects the fragments of a woman’s life. Actually Beckett's theatrical of third-person is more akin to a form of depersonalisation in which 'I' becomes 'she', resembling the use of free indirect speech in fiction by Kafka and Joyce. Lisa Dwan delivers it at breakneck speed while invisibly strapped to the back of a flat so that her mouth appears high up and literally suspended in darkness. At times it made me think of Beckett’s contemporary and fellow Irishman Francis Bacon, in particular the latter’s paintings of screaming mouths on stalks, like truncated human body-parts or voracious aliens. There’s a similar visceral ruthlessness in both artists, and a similarly defiant adherence to a residual figurality in the face of advancing abstraction, though Bacon’s sadomasochistic antihumanism seems ultimately tame in comparison with Beckett’s cosmic depression.

Footfalls features a woman walking up and down in a strip of light and conversing with her own voiceover in a fragmentary dialogue between dying mother and daughter; essentially it’s a variation on the dying mother-and-son routine in Krapp’s Last Tape. Wearing a long white dress, speaking in clipped tones, and with a pale chiselled beauty, Dwan reminded me of Miss Havisham and her daughter Estella in Great Expectations, weirdly fused. Finally Rockaby features another (the same?) dying woman in a rocking chair, physically and vocally stopping and starting, using a minimalist vocabulary and repeating herself with occasional variations – most startlingly with the one-off exclamation ‘Fuck life!’ towards the end.

I’m a sucker for Beckett, and was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. Dwan is a virtuoso: my only complaint was that her virtuosity sometimes interposed itself between me and the text, and in the end left me thrilled but cold. I missed Beckett’s gallows humour, and his perverse humanity. In Not I, the speed of delivery sometimes left sense behind; and in both Footfalls and Rockaby, there was a degree of impersonation about the performances that made me miss Billie Whitelaw’s more authentic, creaturely persona. There were also a couple of directorial false notes for me: the extra-textual, whispered burst of wordless babble at the end of Not I; and the over-literal death-slump at the end of Rockaby. Nevertheless this was an hour to be treasured and, in the case of Not I, never to be forgotten. A testing Festival work that pulled no punches. More please.


Humph’s final Postcard from Fringe World follows next week.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Postcard from Perth 41

Playing and Reality

Fringe World Week 3: Yours The Face; 10,000; Venus in Fur; Mi Casa Es Su Casa; Concrete Heartbeat; Monroe and Associates; Fuck Decaf; Hex

Most of the shows I’ve seen this week have either been site-specific, immersive or even participatory in form; or in content have crossed the boundary between art and 'real life'.

There’s always a duality in theatre and performance between what’s real and what’s imaginary; presence and absence; the actual and the virtual; but this duality is heightened in the case of work that consciously superimposes two layers of reality within the story or the staging. This kind of work generates a special frisson for the audience that goes well beyond the usual suspension of disbelief; it can even open up a kind of ontological fissure that remains long after the event has passed. ‘What did I just see?’ we ask ourselves. ‘What just happened?’ Where was I?’ And perhaps even: ‘Where am I now? Who am I? And who are you?’ It’s a bit like regaining consciousness after fainting; or perhaps the effects of psychosis or drugs; but (for me anyway) it's a lot less terrifying, and can even be uplifting. A festival or fringe context lends itself to this kind of experience, especially if (like me) you see multiple shows per night. The city becomes strangely doubled or ‘not quite itself’ – and that’s even before having a few drinks.


Neither Yours the Face nor 10,000 – which I saw one after the other last Thursday at the Blue Room Studio – were immersive or participatory, but both played with dual layers of reality, performance and perception. Yours the Face is a solo show from Melbourne company Quiet Little Fox, written by Fleur Kilpatrick, co-directed by Robert Reid and Sarah Walker (who also designed the lighting and set) and performed by Roderick Cairns, with a sound design by Tom Pitts and dramaturgy by Raimondo Cortese. It’s an impressive team, and a slick and assured production. Roderick plays Emmy, a female international fashion model from the US, and her Australian male photographer Peter: they meet overseas, work together, have an affair and finally part ways. Roddy’s performance is fluid and seamless, his mellifluous voice and angular body adapting themselves effortlessly as he switches back and forth between roles; and the same can be said of Fleur’s script, an alternating present-tense monologue that evidently draws on her own experience as a model as well as her considerable skills as a wordsmith. Walker is also a professional photographer, and her design frames the action simply but effectively with an array of lights and reflectors that pop and flash to mark narrative transitions and sculpt the performer’s body as more and more of it is progressively revealed. The most interesting moment for me theatrically came when he removed his top, pulled down his pants halfway and sat on a chair with his back to us, in a brief tableau that made me think of Tiresias, the sage who knew what it meant to be both male and female.

Otherwise I have to confess I found the play elegant but a little undramatic. It reminded me of a film like Lost in Translation: two strangers crossing paths and then parting ways in a shimmering transient world. Yours the Face is a genre-piece consisting of figures in a landscape: like a painting or photograph whose narrative has been put into words. In cinema or literature this kind of story can hold my attention because dialogue, conflict and even character are relatively unimportant (or even redundant) in comparison with visual or verbal texture. In a theatrical context however I needed more: the characters felt shallow, dialogue forced and conflict almost non-existent. This wouldn’t have mattered in a film or short story, if the cinematography or language were ravishing enough to compensate. In this case, I found the whole thing a pleasure to watch and listen to; but ultimately I didn’t care.


10,000 is a new play co-written and co-performed by Jess Messenger and Nick Maclaine, efficently directed by Hellie Turner and lit by Joe Lui, with sexy costumes and set by Tessa Darcey, appropriately cheesy sound design by The Men From Another Place (aka Steve McCall and Dave Richardson) and thrilling fight direction by Andy Fraser.

Edie and AJ are a couple with a child whose relationship is on the rocks. They check into a hotel room and embark on AJ’s favourite video game in an effort to liven things up. It’s AJ’s idea, and Edie is understandably dubious about the whole exercise; but as the game progresses both players lose control of the situation and their roles.

I’m not a game-player, but I found watching the actors’ bodies as they inhabited their digital avatars hugely enjoyable. I’m also not normally a fan of simulated fighting (or simulated sex) onstage; but here both fighting and simulation were crucial to the action (perhaps because they serve as a substitute for real fighting – if not real sex) and a joy to watch, especially up close and personal at The Blue Room Studio. Nick in particular has a gift for physical comedy; and the transformative effect of the action on Jess (and her character) was a delight to behold.

In the end of course the play predictably skewers the idea that virtual reality can in any sense restore the damage done to actual relationships in the real world (a damage done in part by the addiction to technology). As such, it’s a kind of cynical antidote to the ideology of the culture industry, as exemplified by the sentimentality of films like Avatar (or more recently Interstellar), which effectively abandon the real (and the planet) in the name of technological fantasy.

As a writer, Jess evidently has a fascination with popular culture and its shadow-side. I’m not familiar with the world of gaming, but her ironic postmodern feminist perspective on the fantasy and sci-fi action genre makes me think of Joss Whedon: in particular his use of generic self-consciousness, heightened language and comedy of manners.

If anything, perhaps the play suffers from being just a little too predictable: as the game escalates and accelerates from one level of difficulty to another, it’s pretty clear that things can only end one way (again and again and again). The fact that Edie and Ajay have a child gives a little more substance to proceedings; but I found myself wanting a little more narrative to flesh out their characters – and indeed the game itself. Mind you, perhaps that’s why I’m not a game-player (but see my review of Monroe and Associates below).


On Saturday afternoon I saw Black Swan’s contribution to this year’s Fringe: a production of Venus in Fur by American playwright David Ives, directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tate and starring Adam Booth and Felicity Mackay, with a set by Patrick Howe, costumes by Cullen-Tate, lighting by Joe Lui and sound by Brett Smith. It’s a young and talented team, slightly wasted on what I felt was a somewhat middle-aged and creaky work.

Thomas (Booth) is the director and writer of the play-within-the play, Venus in Fur, an adaptation of the nineteenth-century novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whom masochism gets its name). Vanda (Mackay) is an actress who turns up late and unscheduled to audition for the role of Wanda (geddit?) and convinces Thomas to read opposite her. By the end of the play, she sexually tortures and humiliates him in apparent revenge for his professional humiliation and torture of her in some kind of meta-theatrical quid pro quo.

The whole thing is so preposterous that it’s hard to believe not only the action onstage, but the fact that the play was a sensation off and on Broadway some years ago, and was even recently adapted into a film by Polanski (reviewed in a previous Postcard from Perth on last year’s French Film Festival). The film at least is a deliciously shot and acted (if somewhat campy) addition to the genre of cinema-about-theatre, which dispenses entirely with the play’s New York setting. The Black Swan production on the other hand adhered scrupulously to the safety rails of the original setting and accents. This added yet another layer of artifice, which I felt diminished the play’s impact (and credibility) even further.

The actors both did their best and gave lively performances; the set intriguingly combined features of New York loft and Hapsburg Baroque interior; the costumes (contemporary and allegedly nineteenth-century Viennese) all looked (appropriately?) as if they’d emerged from the same dressing-up box; and lighting and sound dutifully described every emotional nuance for the audience. Yet I felt play and production both fell short of their subject and source.

Like the parallel works of de Sade a century earlier, Sacher-Masoch’s novel is a fascinating document of psychopathology and an important contribution to philosophy (at least according to certain philosophers), albeit of dubious literary value (although not as unreadable as Justine or The 100 Days of Sodom). The original Venus is a moving and in its own way radical confession which attempts to articulate sexual role-play and bondage as a psychological reality and even a form of political freedom. The play on the other hand is a rather tame bourgeois meta-theatrical pantomime: part Six Characters in Search of an Author and part Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If the novel disturbs, the play consoles: bad-guy middle-class male sexist director-playwright gets his comeuppance at the hands of good-girl working-class feminist actor who’s also (you guessed it!) an avatar of the goddess Venus herself.

At the contrived turning-point of the play, The Bacchae is unconvincingly harnessed to Sacher-Masoch: Thomas inexplicably swaps roles with Vanda, puts on a dog-collar, dresses as a woman and allows himself to be tied to a heating pipe with her stockings and whipped. The result is as ludicrous, anti-climactic, prudish, tasteless and sexist onstage as it was in Polanski’s film. Worst of all, it completely fails to be erotic or transgressive.

I’d prefer to see the same creative team do their own adaptation of Sacher-Masoch anytime. Now that would be a Black Swan Lab Fringe World production worth frocking up for!


After Venus I left the Cultural Centre and Northbridge behind and ventured across the railway line and through the dead heart of the Perth CBD. Eventually I crossed the vertiginous footbridge that soars over the freeway and found myself entering the leafy uphill stretch of Mount St that leads to King’s Park and the Riverview Hotel. It was a totally unfamiliar landscape for me, and this slightly eerie sense of adventure only increased as the night went on.

Mi Casa es su Casa is a site-specific promenade work inside the hotel, presented by STUT Dance. More precisely, it’s three works: ‘Imagio-Mio’ choreographed by STRUT director Paul Selwyn Norton and performed by Rachel Ogle and Timothy Ohl on the front terrace, out on the street and inside the vestibule of the hotel; ‘Suite Secret’, choreographed and performed by Gabrielle Nankivell in one of the hotel apartments; and ‘Untitled’, choreographed by Anthony Hamilton and performed by Lucas Marie and Nicole Ward in and around the carpark at the rear of the building.

The hotel itself is (like all hotels) a weird place. The front bar, foyer and apartment that provide the settings for the first two works all have a dark, 90s faux-chic glamour that contrasts strikingly with the somewhat down-at-heel suburban motel feel of the carpark and the outdoor stairways, landings, balconies and rooms that surround it. In short: I felt I’d entered a schizoid world of glamorous façade and seedy underside that reminded me of the films of David Lynch or the staged photographs of Gregory Crewdson.

Aside from the choreographic use of interior and exterior architecture, the most exciting aspect of the night was negotiating one’s own role as an audience-participant. This became more interesting as we crowded into the lounge-room of the apartment with Gabrielle, and then followed her through the extremely strange layout of the suite: through the sliding glass doors, past the bathroom and into the bedroom. The real pay-off though came in the carpark, as we perched on the stairs, landings and balconies, watching the antics of the dancers below and sharing the experience with random curious onlookers from the hotel rooms.

Most surreal of all was the experience I had on leaving the carpark at the end of the show. As I emerged from the hotel driveway, through the glass wall of the terrace bar I caught sight of a second audience watching what took me a moment to realise was the first section of the show repeating itself all over again. Of course I knew there were three sessions a night, but the unexpected encounter was nevertheless nothing short of uncanny. It was something akin to déjà vu, but with an additional sense of depersonalisation: I almost expected to see myself in the crowd through the glass.

I watched for a while, until performers and audience disappeared inside the foyer. Then I went back to the bar and had a couple of stiff drinks with a fellow audience-member and friend, who seemed similarly affected by the experience. This uncanny feeling continued as I walked back down the street, across the footbridge over the freeway, and back to the station to catch the train home.

Like the best location theatre, the whole of Mi Casa es Su Casa is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. As the song says: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.


On Tuesday night I was back in Northbridge for Concrete Heartbeat at PICA. This is a touring show created and performed by Sydney artist Mark Haslam. It’s a kind of verbal, sonic and scenic cityscape ostensibly inspired by the View-Master 3-D reels (and corresponding stereoscopic viewers) that were popular from the late thirties. In essence: Haslam stands behind a microphone and delivers a series of verbal portraits of anonymous types (‘The Nurse’, ‘The Cleaner’, ‘The Tourist’, ‘The Child’) at various hours of the 24-cycle in an equally anonymous city that could be Sydney, London or any other metropolis. Behind him still and moving images by Tania Lambert and Melvin Montalban are projected across the walls and onto variously stacked and arranged piles of crates; between the stories, Haslam rearranges the crates in new shapes to a pulsing soundtrack by Toby Paramore (paranym).

It’s an engaging hour, visually and sonically; Haslam isn’t a natural performer, but he has an endearingly anxious oddness onstage that keeps you pinned; and the stories while little more than sketches have a certain whimsical beat-poetry that’s easy on the ear. I didn’t feel he offered any great insights into the nature of city life; but I was intrigued by him and his perspective nonetheless, especially during one wordless sketch which saw him sitting opposite a single stack of crates onto which the image of a busker was projected eating a burger and staring into space. It was a rare moment of stillness and silence that allowed us in rather than reaching out to us. Less is more.


On Wednesday night I saw three shows, beginning with Monroe and Associates from the prolific imagination of Tim Watts. This is the first draft of a new show by Tim, and like all his work it’s a technically complex, aesthetically charming and uniquely enjoyable experience that beneath the fun and games has I think a serious moral purpose.

Monroe combines a one-on-one, participatory format with an open-ended narrative content – in other words, it’s a live game for two players, one of whom holds most of the cards. It’s also location-specific and immersive: it takes place in a caravan.

The formal twist is that you’re initially isolated, or at least one stage removed, from Tim himself, who plays multiple roles, and communicates mostly via an old-fashioned telephone. The narrative twist is that you don’t initially know who you are, except that you’ve suffering from amnesia, and have to reconstruct what’s happened, and to some extent choose your own adventure, based on clues. It’s a garden of forking paths that leads you into miniature world of corruption that’s part film noir and part comic cartoon (in fact it’s related to the imaginary world that was the setting for Tim’s previous large-scale live-game work, Pollyanna).

It would be wrong to give too much away, but the beauty of this work for me lies in the element of choice: not just embedded in the form, but explored as a central theme. There was a pivotal moment when I realised not just what had happened, but that it didn't determine what happened next. More than that: I realised that a human being is not just a physical body, the sum of their past actions, or even their memories, but has a moral identity. Monroe and Associates is great fun, but I walked out of that caravan with a sense of self I didn’t know I had before. Although there's no explicit use of animation employed in this show (unlike much of Tim's work), there's a sense in which giving things a soul lies at its heart. As the great child-psychologist Winnicott argued: that's the essence of playing and reality.


My next location theatre piece was a couple of blocks away: Fuck Decaf by The Cutting Room Floor. This is a remount of a show that played at Mary St Bakery to great acclaim last year: this time it took place at Frisk Small Bar in Francis St.

Written by Tyler Jacob Jones and directed by Scott Corbett with dramaturgy by Zoe Hollyoak, Fuck Decaf is about two female friends (played by Anne Marie Biagoni and Amanda Watson) who meet at a café, drink coffee, flirt with the waiter and talk about their love-lives. Time-jumps are measured by the waiter ringing a bell: things get more frenetic, more coffee gets drunk, more boyfriends float under the bridge.

I really struggled with this show. Like the company’s I Can Breathe Underwater (reviewed in last week’s Postcard from Perth Fringe World) I found the performances relentlessly loud and over the top, the writing two-dimensional and the characters self-absorbed. Worse: I couldn’t get over the fact that they talked about nothing other than men, and seemed dependent on them for conversation, meaning and purpose.

Was this post-feminism or pre-feminism? Blinding gender-satire or blind sexist stereotyping? I couldn’t say. One season of Sex in the City was enough for me; but at least that was witty, and Samantha at least was sexually empowered. This felt more like watching the worst of British TV farce.

To be fair: the rest of the audience seemed to find it hilarious. I obviously didn’t get it. The use of location and hurling of stage-coffee were presumably meant to be subversive, but to me it all felt painfully unreal.


Last show of the night, and one of the highlights of my Fringe so far, was Hex at PICA, which I only saw at the last minute, thanks to a friend’s recommendation.

At last: a Fringe show that’s truly subversive, even transgressive, in content and form; dazzlingly skilled; and full of passionate intensity. And interestingly, the only show I’ve seen this week that doesn’t mess around with site-specific, immersive, participatory form or meta-theatrical content – unless you include vogue-balls and masquerade as meta-theatre, which they undoubtedly are.

James Welsby’s dance work for two men and one woman about HIV, its history and impact from the perspective of his generation - the generation that grew up in the 90s, after the previous generation’s struggle for liberation, decimation from the pandemic, and the backlash that followed – is terrifying, witty, beautiful, moving, sexy, angry and exhilarating. It’s thrilling to see a contemporary dance work using a sophisticated movement language (including a severe and almost hieratic use of vogue moves and gestures) and eschewing spoken language completely – thus avoiding the reduction of meaning that so often ensues when dance and theatre are put together.

Even the more mimetic sequences – such as the harrowing use of shivering that recalled the early symptoms of infection, the inspired and obscene use of pink rubber gloves that simultaneously suggested sex, illness and medicine, or the violent stamping polka that recalled the protests and riots like Stonewall which became the forgotten origins of Gay Pride marches today – all formed part of an abstract tapestry that allowed us to witness, interpret and make our own connections without being told. The soundtrack was also thrilling: a remix of disco, pop, dance and nostalgia tracks, punctuated by mesmerising silences or warped into ambiences of horror. Most powerful of all for me was the image of the dancers crouching close-up and singing into each other’s mouths: a multivalent image of passion, infection, love and grieving.

Just when you thought Fringe was all about fun and games, along comes the dance party to end all dance parties – but still, finally, a defiant gesture of celebration.


Humph’s Postcards from Fringe World continue next week.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Postcard from Sydney (3)

ATF Diary: Thurs 21 Jan

On Thursday morning I sleep in (WA body clock still three hours behind) and miss the third morning Keynote Address, by Richard Frankland. I feel guilty, but decide to take my time and do my knee physiotherapy exercises before catching the bus back to the Seymour Centre. I’ve got another big day at the Forum ahead and another Sydney Festival show to see that night.

When I arrive I have a catchup morning tea with a Perth independent theatre colleague. We talk about the challenges of doing what we do, especially in her case as a female director who’s interested in group-devised work with local writers rather than the currently dominant model of young male auteur directors with strong visual preconceptions and an interest in re-imagining classics.  We also talk about the prospect of hosting an independent theatre festival in Perth each year or perhaps bienially. What better place for indies across the country to convene in winter than the city at the edge of the world?

After morning tea I head down to the black-box Reginald Theatre for ‘Digital Frontiers’, a Breakout Session with a panel featuring a Resident Artist in Education with a major company, a writer with some experience in multimedia, and the creative producer of a venue that recently hosted a festival of live art and another ‘festival’ that experimented with international digital collaborations. Someone sitting to my right is busily using a hand-held digital device, and after a few minutes I ask her politely if she’d mind switching it off as I can’t concentrate on what the speakers are saying. She apologies and does so without protest. After a few minutes someone to my left starts doing the same thing, so I repeat the same request, and he looks at me silently for a moment before complying.

The artist in education on the panel talks about a schools project involving digital workshops that didn’t work, and another that did work involving two audiences, one of live participants and a second audience observing the first one ‘live’ onscreen. The multimedia writer then describes a performance in which a ‘fake’ panel discussion with a live audience was ‘hijacked’ halfway through (presumably through digital devices) by virtual characters advocating internet freedom. I don’t quite understand the details of the event (as at this stage I’m still being distracted by the flickering device of the man on my left), but apparently the audience rose up in protest against the digital hijackers and voted that they be ‘deleted’ so that the live panel discussion could continue. Our speaker offers this as an example of how multimedia can successfully create a new kind of performance; but I’m not sure that it isn’t on the contrary an example of an audience wanting to return to an unmediated live event. The creative producer then describes how most of the digital collaborations she recently hosted at her venue ended up using comparatively little ‘live’ digital interaction because of the vagaries of skype connections and time zones, and instead mostly relied on occasionally exchanging emails.

During the discussion I raise my hand and ask the panellists if they’re concerned about the ecological, social, psychological and physical health impacts of digital technology, given the back-up electricity demands required by 24-hour global internet servers; the environmental and social justice infringements involved in extracting raw materials and their manufacture in underdeveloped countries; and the crippling effect of our widespread addiction to hand-held screens. The panel agree but don’t have any answers. Neither do I, except to reflect that digital technology is no environmental panacea or passport to artistic or political freedom. In this respect, digital devices are like cars: we have to learn how to moderate and perhaps even regulate their use.

After the discussion, the man to my left introduces himself and tells me that he found my request to switch off his device ‘confronting’. I apologize for confronting him, and we have a polite discussion about the issue. He informs me that there’s a ‘live’ Twitter feed going on throughout the forum across different venues, and that I’ve infringed on his ‘democratic right’ to participate in the virtual conversation. I ask him what he thinks about my ‘democratic right’ to attend the actual session I’ve chosen as a member of a ‘live’ audience without being distracted, and he suggests that I can always sit somewhere else. I silently reflect on the fact that there’s a double standard here. As with the use of digital technology onstage, its use in the audience creates an ontological hole in the shared experience of live performance, including public discussion forums. We agree it’s a complex issue and part amicably, but I can feel which way the wind is blowing. Perhaps ‘democracy’ and ‘live performance’ are two more terms that need to be articulated and differentiated a little more carefully.


After lunch I head back down to the Reginald for another Breakout Sessions, ‘Who Owns The Story?’ The facilitator is a director and former artistic director with a special interest in community and cross-cultural collaboration (and a previous ATF curator); the panel includes two more artistic directors, an Aboriginal actor and director, and a verbatim theatre maker.

My heart sinks as the facilitator spends the first ten minutes of the session inviting people in the audience to come down to the stage and write questions for the panel up on a whiteboard before the discussion has even begun. My spirits lift again when the first artistic director panellist begins to speak about her experience of being invited to direct a show in Mexico with a company most of whose members had direct or indirect experience of being abducted or terrorised. When she questioned her own appropriateness as a director, the leader of the company countered that it was precisely in her capacity as an outsider that they valued her artisic perspective. 

The discussion that follows wrestles with the Protean question of cultural appropriation, artistic rights and individual responsibility. The verbatim theatre maker is up-front about her own right and responsibility to edit and stage documentary material, shape the story and create the final performance. The Aboriginal actor and writer is more ambivalent about the question of rights and responsibilities, and the other artistic director on the panel acknowledges that things are ‘messy’ but thinks they’re better for being so. I’m not so sure.

When question-time comes, the topics on the whiteboard are quickly left behind. I put up my hand a couple of times but the facilitator tells me I’ll need to ‘jump in’ and then fields the discussion back to another questioner. Eventually I seize my opportunity, and suggest there’s a difference between the form of storytelling (which is the work of the artist) and the content of the story (which can come from anywhere and perhaps doesn’t ultimately belong to anyone).

I cite the example of a verbatim theatre piece I worked on that was based on interviews with asylum seekers. We gave the participants right of veto over the raw transcripts, but not over the finished script. I use as counter-example a solo show I wrote and performed that involved Aboriginal characters, local language and an indigenous dreaming story that I myself dreamed up. I involved an Aboriginal consultant from the area where the story was set, who contributed to the content and encouraged me to do what I wanted. After the final performance another Aboriginal colleague in the audience (who happens to be the panelist who’s sitting in front of me, and who now smiles and acknowledges the coincidence) confronted me and objected to the stereotyped Aboriginal characters in the story. I defended myself at the time by saying that the story and characters were based on real people and events, but acknowledged that ‘my story’ had offended him and was perhaps inevitably prejudiced by my own cultural perspective. As I tell this story, I think of The Secret River and Rachael Maza’s response in her speech a couple of days ago to what she saw as the play’s unconscious perpetuation of prejudice. As I understand it, though, this is an argument for Aboriginal people telling their side of the story as well; not for claims of ownership, censorship or shutting down the debate.

In summary: I suggest that as artists we’re responsible for our own acts of storytelling and should be prepared to wear that responsibility, rather than censoring each other or ourselves. I want to hear a response from the panellists, but the discussion is shut down by the facilitator: we need to move on, we’re running out of time, we know the answers already, or think we do.

My Aboriginal colleague on the panel offers to continue the conversation later. After the session, I wander up to him for a chat, but one of the other (white) panellists monopolizes him. She says we need to understand that for Aboriginal people ‘owning a story’ is like ‘owning a house’. I’m not convinced by this analogy.  I feel uneasy about the implications as to who can or can’t tell particular stories. I recognise that traditional communities lay claim to traditional stories, storytelling (and other) roles and practices, but I’m not sure it’s a simple question of property, or even propriety. Once again, I feel a need to differentiate: between the cultural and even cultic value of stories or works of art and their aesthetic, political, personal or even exchange value. There’s no simple rule that cuts across these categories, and I’m not comfortable with the idea of shibboleths and taboos.

Up until now I’ve always thought ‘political correctness’ was a straw-man invented by the reactionary right, but right now I feel like I’m up to my neck in it; and interestingly it’s not coming from the indigenous or multicultural delegates but from the dominant ‘white’ cultural gatekeepers, custodians and ‘facilitators’. Perhaps I’m just an inveterate contrarian (over dinner that night a friend affectionately refers to my ‘sheer bloody-mindedness’) but once again (as with the session on digital frontiers) I feel like identity politics and ‘group’ rights can lead to a form of ‘group-think’ that doesn’t tolerate difference or shades of opinion. I’m not having a good day.

When I catch up with my Aboriginal colleague outside the theatre and suggest we have lunch, he tells me he’s busy. Another time.


After lunch I attend a third Break Out Session on ‘ “Independence” Within An “Industry” ’ (double inverted commas intentional). It’s hosted by a thoughtful and generous independent artist from Melbourne who opens with a confession of his own financial and career compromises over the last year. The room is crammed with indies (whoever we are) young and old, and he encourages us all to break off into twos and threes and ‘confess’ our own stories of shame and stress. I’m sitting with two writers (one also a critic), and our confessions are all about money (mine is about asking for free tickets). Then he invites us all to call out practical offers and suggestions about how to share resources and lighten the load.

The session is both encouraging and strangely deflating. By the end, I feel like I’ve been at an encounter group or AA meeting. I look around the room and wonder what if anything we all have in common, what if anything ‘independent’ or ‘industry’ mean in this context and whether they’re even helpful terms. We all seem pretty dependent to me: on each other, on significant others, on audiences, venues, funding bodies and other organisations, big and small. And is ‘industry’ the right word for a sphere of activity that’s clearly not driven by profit, and people who do what they do out of passion (or compulsion) rather than for money? Perhaps co-dependency and collective neurosis would be more appropriate diagnostic terms.

More specifically, what’s the difference between being an ‘independent’ and simply being a freelance artist (like most jobbing actors or freelance writers for example)? The fact that as ‘independent artists’ we’re self-employed, or initiate and make our own work? Perhaps (as an arts accountant in the room suggests) we’re a socio-economic category, like entrepreneurs or small-business-people. But what’s the difference then between being ‘independent’ and simply being an artist? And is it a badge of pride or a label for a ghetto? I’m not sure.

It occurs to me in this regard that jobbing actors and freelance writers are generally more squeamish than self-proclaimed indies about calling themselves ‘artists’. Perhaps they’re just less pretentious, or more realistic. Or perhaps they’ve just settled for a different badge, a different ghetto, a different group identity. Once again I’m struck by how few of them (especially jobbing actors) are here. A sense of powerlessness, voicelessness, scepticism or even futility about the very idea, meaning or purpose of having an Australian Theatre Forum? Perhaps they just can’t afford to be here. Most of the jobbing actors I know are either working – or working in some other job. I wonder how many would apply for a place or qualify as an ‘independent’ delegate. Once again the class structure of the industry rears its head.


Picking up on this theme, the day ends with a Plenary Session entitled ‘Smashing the Silos’. It’s back in the larger Everest Theatre, and I guess it’s described as ‘plenary’ because it’s intended for everyone: major and small-to-medium organisations, independents, freelancers (though once again I don’t see many freelance actors, technicians or stage crew here). The title refers to ‘collaborations between big and small companies and independent artists’: the ‘silos’ in question presumably being the funding and resources of the major organisations. These have been sheltered from massive cuts to the Australia Council by the current federal government, which have mostly impacted on small-to-medium and project-based companies. The facilitator is an executive producer with a small-to-medium organisation, and the panel consists of two independent artists who’ve done co-productions with larger funded companies, a producer with a major organisation, and the artistic director of another major organisation that started small.

I’m dreading another Q&A, but in the event it’s a refreshingly honest kiss-and-tell. The facilitator is very much part of the conversation and successfully mediates between the panellists; the discussion progresses; and I sense a genuine desire on the part of organisations and artists to make compromises and share power and resources. During question-time, a colleague from Daily Review calls on the major organisations to show solidarity with small-to-medium and project-based companies in the face of funding cuts that disadvantage the latter while leaving the former untouched, and the artistic director on the panel is disarmingly outspoken in his attack on the government. An independent company artist stands up and asks for access to programming and the artistic director tells him to ‘come and see him’. The producer of the other major organisation addresses the thorny question of hosting independent seasons without paying the artists; she acknowledges that it’s a transitional step, and she hopes they’ll be paying them in another five years. So do I.

All in all, I feel that this session is the most productive I’ve attended so far, and I leave the Forum at the end of the day feeling a little more sanguine about being an ‘independent’ and perhaps even part of an ‘industry’.


That night I have dinner with an old friend at a restaurant behind the Wharf Theatre on Walsh Bay. Luna Park grins at us across the Harbour and we reminisce about being part of a theatremaking collective back in the 80s. He reminds me of my ‘bloodymindedness’ and I burst out laughing. Some things don’t change.

After dinner we cross Hickson Rd and see another Festival show: French master-clown-mime-designer-director-theatremaking genius James Thierry’s Tabac Rouge at the Sydney Theatre. I saw Raoul – his last touring show to visit Australia – at the Perth Festival two years ago and was blown away. Tabac Rouge has been talked down by some people, perhaps because of its lack of overt narrative; but I find it even more thrilling than Raoul, and more profound. The physical and visual storytelling is clear to me: Thierry himself embodies an isolated Prospero-like figure surrounded by servants and offspring who are also fragments of himself. It’s about power and letting go, and I’m weeping by the end. This is theatre that doesn’t need to prove itself by speaking its message out loud or presenting identification papers. It’s justified by its artistry, has its own truth-content and makes its own rules. In other words: it’s art.

Friday 23 January

My final day at ATF. I miss the morning’s Opening Keynote Address (again) and attend a ‘Writing Room’ session (the third and last one) on ‘Writing Time’. The room is full of playwrights: it’s an oddly intense, introverted atmosphere. The facilitator is from a playwriting organisation, and the panel consists of a dramaturg and three writers. I enjoy the focus on craft, but have the feeling no-one really knows what they’re talking about, or how to talk about it – they just know how to do it (or not, as the case may be). I enjoy hearing about plays I haven’t seen or read though (past, present or to come) and imagining them in the flesh. I have a strong sense of the transience of the artform, and the amnesia that afflicts us as a culture.

The next session I go to is even more focussed on craft, and remembering things: the final ‘Respect Your Elders’ session is a conversation with Peter Wilson, puppet-guru and erstwhile artistic director of Handspan, the company that virtually invented visual theatre in Australia in the 80s. Seeing some of his productions back then – especially Secrets and Cho-Cho-San – transformed my sense of what puppetry and visual storytelling could be. He’s a wise, witty, vulnerable and generous conversationalist, and I’m enchanted all over again, as I was by the work all those years ago. It’s good to be reminded of the path others have walked – and in a sense the path that’s led us here. It helps me to understand where we are – and perhaps what’s missing.

The 70s and 80s in Australia were a time when grassroots social and cultural revolution from below was fostered by political revolution from above, and artists rode the wave. In the 90s and 00s, that process stagnated: movements and groups become institutions; a new professional cultural class took charge; and a new cultural divide separated administrators from artists, and perhaps artists from audiences. More recently there’s been another generational shift, but unlike the previous one, the structures of power remain unchanged. The new revolution, it seems to me, must proceed undercover, as it were, micrologically, in the gaps and interstices. I had some inkling of that in the session on ‘Smashing the Silos’ – perhaps not so much smashing the silos, though, as burrowing beneath them, or inserting oneself through the cracks.


After lunch, we’re all transported on buses to the Opera House for a final Keynote Address by Flemish festival director Frie Leysen: ‘About Embracing the Elusive: Or, The Necessity of the Superfluous.’ It’s a feisty manifesto for autonomous art, and a timely intervention at the end of a Forum which I feel has dealt too much in terms of content and too little in terms of form; too much in terms of ‘the industry’ and too little in terms of the artform itself. I’m encouraged by her provocation that ‘art, culture and entertainment’ are ‘completely different’; and that art shouldn’t be asked to solve the problems of society or politics. She champions artists rather than single works; and arts organisations, venues, festivals, funding bodies, markets and even audiences are firmly put in their place – that is, defined in relation to art and artists, rather than the other way around. The pleasure-principle of consumerism and the reality-principle of commercialisation are both attacked in the name of disturbance, difficulty, imagination and intuition.

Afterwards, a motion of no-confidence in the Federal Government is passed around. I’m sympathetic, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a feeble gesture which completely misses the point of her speech.


That night I reunite with my Sydney friend who met me on the opening night of the Forum, and another friend and colleague from Perth who’s moving to Sydney, and we head out on the train to my final Sydney Festival show, Bankstown: Live. It’s a community event by Urban Theatre Projects occupying a residential avenue in Bankstown. Under a brooding Sydney sky, there’s a welcome to country by an Aboriginal elder, a Philippines-inspired spirit-house street procession, and an outdoor ballroom dancing event by couples from the local Vietnamese and other communities, followed by a program of formally and culturally diverse works and performances staged in front and back yards.

My friends and I stay for a storytelling theatre piece, The Tribe, based on a novel about growing up in a Lebanese-Australian family. It’s beautifully performed in a backyard by a Palestinian-Australian actor and friend who trained in Perth, and accompanied by a cellist, gusts of wind and flocks of parrots in the impressive eucalypts that stand sentinel over the old delapidated timber house.

The work, like the whole event, is slightly sentimental; but I feel that I’m participating in a genuine community theatre project, which has its own standards and indeed constitutes its own artform. In this sense, it’s every bit as autonomous as puppetry or contemporary dance.

We eat street-food at interval and then decide to head home. I’m weary, and my flight leaves early tomorrow morning. On the train back, I realise I’ll miss my friends, and the vibrant, teeming, multicultural metropolis of Sydney. But I also miss my community back home: my partner, my kids, my own suburban street, and my theatre colleagues and friends back in that remote city across the continent, on the edge of a different ocean.


Humph attended the Australian Theatre Forum in Sydney with the support of the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. His next Postcard from Perth Fringe World will be posted later this week.