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.