Postcard from Perth 44
All That Glitters/The Mars Project/WASO Brahms Festival
I’ve been back in Perth for a month now, after five months of overseas travel, research, training and development (including the unexpected end of my marriage), and have been slowly picking up the pieces of my old/new life since then. And what better place to do so than in the most remote city on the planet – a place I first moved to when I followed my ex-partner and children here after my first marriage ended fifteen years ago? It’s like having a relapse of the same old illness, returning to the same sanitorium and starting my recovery all over again – all over again. As the song says: you can check out, but you can never leave. So welcome to Postcards from Perth: Series 2. Things may get progressively darker for a while, but hang in there; there’s bound to be a plot-twist or two down the track, and hopefully some promising additions to the cast along the way.
Meanwhile, I’m pleased to say that the theatre and cultural scene here in Perth is as lively as ever. After a couple of weeks of laying low, I ventured out to The Blue Room to see The Last Great Hunt’s latest production, All That Glitters. Directed by Gita Bezard and co-devised by her with the performers (Adriane Daff, Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs) and Kathryn Osborne, the show tackles the issue of ‘our’ treatment of asylum seekers and the question of what ‘we’ can do about it. I use these pronouns (and place them in quotation marks) deliberately because the play and the director’s note in the program explicitly frame the issue and the question in these terms. ‘We’ in the first case means ‘we Australians’ – and in the second case, even more specifically, ‘this group of white privileged Australian theatre makers’.
I have to admit I have a few problems with these usages of the pronoun ‘we’, and the slippage between them. In the first case: who exactly is this ‘we’ that ‘subjects’ asylums seekers to mandatory offshore detention or ‘supports’ this cruel policy? The current Government (and one might add the Labor Party who first introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers and then raced the Coalition to the bottom in terms of processing them offshore)? Those who voted for them? Those who answered the questions framed by a given survey in a certain way? Those who actually implement the policy, from bureaucrats down to security guards? And who is this ‘we’ that purports to speak in their name? I’m sceptical about these constructed collectives, and these slippages in meaning or reference. For myself, I can speak only in my own name – that is to say, ‘for myself’, as an individual, albeit one who also belongs to various groups and communities. I can also speak about others – including politicians, voters, asylum seekers themselves, and the people who work or interact with them; I can even (why not?) speak ‘as’ them (for example by portraying them onstage); but I can’t speak for them. Moreover, who determines who ‘we’ are – we ‘white’, ‘privileged’ Australians, and more particularly we ‘white’, ‘privileged’ theatre makers? Whom do we include – and whom do we exclude – from these designated groups and collectives? What kind of racism – and other forms of prejudice, including class – are we implicitly reinforcing by doing so?
To be honest, I’m tired of these categories, and these constructs. And to be even more honest, I’m tired of these attempts to ‘do something’ through ‘our’ art. ‘We’ have been doing this (God knows, I’ve done it myself) for the last fifteen years– since the ‘Tampa’ election of 2001 at least – and ‘we’ have achieved nothing; I even wonder if ‘we’ have been making a monumental mistake by continuing to engage in a ‘conversation’ about an ‘issue’ that’s essentially been constructed by the Right side of politics in order to polarise the community, wedge the Opposition and win elections. There’s no ‘issue’, from the point of view of human rights or social justice, and no ‘conversation’ to be had. Reversing an odious policy – or even helping asylum seekers under the existing policy – isn’t about consciousness-raising; it’s about an Opposition having the courage to oppose and defeat the current Government without capitulating to its terms; and in the meantime it’s about giving as much legal, medical, psychological, spiritual and other forms of material aid as ‘we’ can, whoever ‘we’ are – laywers, doctors, counsellors, clergy and even theatremakers. Go to Nauru or Manus Island and do plays there. Hand out how-to-vote cards for the Greens. Write to your local Labor MP. But don’t waste time with hysterical hand-wringing about how your art isn’t ‘doing’ anything. There’s even something faintly obscene about this kind of onstage agonising while people offstage and offshore are dying.
In this case, the four actors refer to themselves by name (as ‘Hunter Adriane’, ‘Hunter Jeff’, ‘Hunter Arielle’ and ‘Hunter Chris’), are dressed in gold body-suits and surrounded by a glittering set of gold strip-curtains (all designed by Tessa Darcey). The ambience is relentlessly upbeat (including the lighting and sound by Joe Lui), as the Hunters set about ‘saving lives’ by staging scenes (ostensibly written for the purpose by Hunter Chris) which satirize the very class of ‘white privileged’ Australians to which they themselves belong – scenes which in turn resemble and satirize the ‘white privileged’ satirical theatre of David Williamson or Yasmina Reza. Needless to say, they fail specacularly in their attempt to save any lives (as regularly announced by a neon digital score-tally of zero on the wall behind them), despite Hunter Chris’s increasingly desperate insistence that they resort to the use of rejected scenes and other last-ditch devices. The most telling of these was a frantic tap-dance routine by Chris which reminded me of the futile ‘dance-off’ staged in protest against the recent Brandis arts funding heist. It was all very arch and ironic – and seamlessly performed – but as the show effectively ate itself, I couldn’t help wondering: to what end? As intended, it did provoke thought: not so much about the ‘issue’, as about how and why it should be staged.
In this sense, perhaps the show was a success after all. From Aeschylus’s Suppliants onwards, theatre about asylum seekers or any other ‘issue’ has always been more successful (as art, and perhaps as politics) when it told a specific story than when it has been about the ‘issue’ itself. In any case, perhaps it’s time to have a moratorium on theatre about asylum seekers for a while, and get on with the task of dealing with and representing the global and growing phenomenon of displacement in a more humane and effective way.
Will O’Mahony’s new play The Mars Project, which I saw the following week, uses a current issue or topic in the opposite way: as the springboard for a story that asks the more general question of what constitutes the value or worth of a human being or endeavour – or in the words of the play, what ‘greatness’ means. Written and directed by Will for the 3rd Year WAAPA Acting students, the play superposes three narrative layers: an imaginary version of the actual mission to colonise Mars (and the reality-TV competition which is hypothesized to finance it); the personal development movement typified by cults like Landmark Forum; and (in a intuitively brilliant move which gives the play its substance and depth) the phenomenon of autism and its treatment. The putative protagonist of the play is Wren, a contestant for the Mars Project (and game-show) and a member of a self-help group; but its real hero is her brother Sam, who suffers from severe autism. In the course of the play, Wren’s understandable and heart-rending desire to transcend her situation and free herself by leaving Earth (and her dependent brother) is contrasted with Sam’s courage in remaining and enduring as himself. In other words: the familiar postmodern ‘will to change’ is contrasted with the less often trumpeted will to stay the same and embrace one’s fate, as Nietzche put it in his doctrine of amor fati.
Will’s writing and direction were as graceful and assured as always. Dialogue is crisp and full of air; characters are lightly sketched but leave plenty of space for the actors to inhabit and flesh out; plotting and structure similarly provide the audience with the opportunity to exercise their intelligence and fill in the gaps. In keeping with this minimalist style, the staging was clean, sparse, economical and imaginative. We were seated in the round, with the actors moving around and behind us between and sometimes during scenes; and the only prop was a hula hoop which either lay on the floor or was manipulated (literally and symbolically) by the actors – most memorably for me when Sam kept it spinning elliptically around his hips while orbiting Wren like the Earth around the Sun. Finally, the direction of the actors was consistently restrained. It’s not appropriate for me to review individual performances in the context of a student production; but cast and director created a strong sense of ensemble in which each actor had room for their own idiosyncracies while inhabiting a common stylistic world. The night I saw the show there were a number of autistic people in the audience; it’s a tribute to the power of the writing, staging, direction and performances that their presence was in no way distracting, but only heightened the stakes.
Will’s previous plays have been set in somewhat fanciful, allegorical, dreamlike or dystopian worlds. Despite its title, The Mars Project is more down-to-earth, but it’s no less a thought-experiment that illuminates certain enduring (and acutely contemporary) social, psychological, philosophical and moral conundrums. At the heart of his writing it seems to me lies a fundamentally ethical question: how should I live? The deft touch with which he exposes and probes this question from one play to the next is the mark of that rare creature: a true playwright.
Finally I must report briefly on WASO’s Brahms Festival, which I attended avidly over the last two weekends. Following last years Beethoven Festival, which featured all nine symphonies within a similar two-weekend stretch, this year saw Principal Conductor Asher Fisch conduct all four Brahms Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and Double Concerto with the great violinist Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Amanda Forsyth, and the two Piano Concertos with the fine American pianist Garrick Ohlsson.
Brahms is (and indeed saw himself as) the logical successor to Beethoven in terms of a symphonic cycle conceived in this way. Indeed he was so conscious of Beethoven’s shadow that he postponed writing his First Symphony until he was forty-three; the conductor Hans von Bulow dubbed it ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’. Certainly there’s a similarly ‘heroic’ quality and sense of dramatic tension in the music of both composers, especially the symphonies; but where harmonic, rhythmic and structural tension in Beethoven seems to express the social and psychological tension between freedom and authority, the individual and the collective, and the personal alienation experienced by the composer (no doubt excacerbated by his encroaching deafness), in Brahms a more formal and stylistic tension between classsicism and romanticism reflects an underlying conflict between what might be called the conservative and progressive sides of his musical, professional and emotional personality. Like Beethoven, Brahms never married, devoted himself almost entirely to his music, and eventually embraced the motto ‘frei aber froh’ (‘free but happy’) in contradistinction to his friend the violinist Joachim’s ‘frei aber einsam’ (‘free but lonely’). Unlike Beethoven’s mysterious ‘eternal beloved’, however, the object of Brahms’s lifelong but unfulfilled love was more well-known: Clara Schumann, the pianist and composer, and the wife of his friend and mentor Schumann, especially in the years after the latter was confined to an asylum for the insane. Indeed, it’s not hard to hear in the ardour and anguish of Brahms’s music, especially in the slow movements, a more or less continual outpouring of this conflicted, yearning and unfulfilled passion. Paradoxically this level of personal emotion finds formal expression through the loneliness and nostalgia of one who defended and developed the strictures of Viennese classicism against the prevailing tide of unfettered romanticism represented by Liszt, Wagner and Bruckner. As such, the music of Brahms speaks to traditionalists and revolutionaries alike; Schönberg for one admired Brahms’s innovations in the use of ‘developing variation’ as a structural principle.
To return to the concerts themselves: orchestra, conductor and soloists did Brahms proud. WASO continues to flourish under Fisch’s baton: led by their newly appointed concertmaster Laurence Jackson, the strings are sounding more unified and more energised from one concert series to the next; while percussion and wind sections continued to distinguish themselves, with outstanding solo work from prinicipal oboe Peter Facer and principal horn David Evans; supported by Fisch’s conducting which consistently brought out the intimate, chamber-music qualities of Brahms’s great orchestral works. For me the most impressively performed symphonies in the cycle were the sweepingly lyrical Second and the tersely tragic Fourth, while Garrick Ohlsson’s commanding interpretations of the two massive Piano Concertos were the highlights of the festival. These are really symphonies for piano and orchestra – or perhaps duets, to pursue the chamber-music analogy, since Brahms’s expansive piano writing sometimes makes the solo instrument sound like an entire orchestra, especially in the hands of a pianist as magisterial as Ohlsson.
All in all, it was a thrilling four concerts, and another triumph for WAASO and Fisch, whose contract has just been renewed for another three years.