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 clich├ęd 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.

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