Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Postcard from Perth 46

Perth Fringe World/Black Swan, Loaded/Gillian Welch

Perth Fringe World is in full swing and has drawn your correspondent back into the fray – at least as a punter if not a performer – from his recent state of hibernation. Now in its fourth year, Perth Fringe claims to be the largest in the world (after Edinburgh and Adelaide) and the largest annual ‘performance-platform’ in the city – at least according to the Fringe World website and its 2015 impact report (which defines ‘largest’ in terms of ‘audience reach’). Certainly this year it feels as if the event has crossed a threshold in terms of the sheer number of acts, venues and crowds of potential audience-members wandering Northbridge, queuing up at the box-office tent, or sitting around drinking and pondering their options at festive outdoor gathering places like the Fringe World Orchard opposite the Art Gallery, the Pleasure Garden and its constellation of show-tents at the other end of James St, or this year’s Fringe World Fairground at the newly renovated Elizabeth Quay down on the Swan River foreshore. Gone is the sense of a small-town, laid-back, boutique fringe experience; in its place, there’s an edge of panic in the air that’s reminiscent of Adelaide and Edinburgh – the scent of dog-eat-dog competition on the part of roving performers touting their wares, and fear-of-missing-out on the part of punters anxiously scouring the nightly white-board listings outside the box-office to see which shows are offering cheap tickets or are already sold-out.

I’ve decided to limit my Fringe intake this year, mostly to the Summer Nights season of theatre shows curated by The Blue Room and PICA – and largely avoiding the plethora of comedy, cabaret and circus acts that now dominate the festival and draw most of the crowds. However, thumbing through the hundred-odd pages of the Fringe World program, I have the impression that while there’s been an expansion in terms of acts and audience, there’s less diversity or innovation in terms of artform or venues. For example, I don’t see anything comparable with last year’s site-specific works like Everything Unknown (a solo-audience immersive experience with headphones on Cottesloe beach), or Strut Dance’s Mi casa es su casa (a promenade contemporary dance suite of works by multiple choreographers that moved through the front courtyard, foyer, rooms and rear carpark of the Riverview Hotel). In short: this year’s Fringe feels less…well, ‘fringe’; at least if the latter term designates not merely a ‘performance-platform’ taking place on the outskirts of a major international arts festival (which begins next week), but one that takes us to the outer edges of familiarity in terms of performance and its possibilities.


I began my Fringe experience three weeks ago with Loaded: A Double Bill of New Plays, a Black Swan Lab Production in the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre featuring two one-hour works by young local writers – Girl Shut Your Mouth by Gita Bezard and Tonsils and Tweezers by Will O’Mahony – performed by Black Swan’s ‘new initiative’ The Bridging Company. The latter is described in the program as ‘an ensemble of eight graduates from WAAPA’s 2015 acting program’, although the putative ‘ensemble’ is actually split into two separate casts for the two plays, which also have two different directors, Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Will O’Mahony. Both plays do however share the same set and costume designer, Lawrie Cullen-Tait; the same lighting designer, Mark Howett (recently returned to Perth from Berlin, and something of a local legend when I first arrived here in 2000); and the same sound designer, Joe Lui. Moreover, the scripts were developed under the aegis of Black Swan’s Emerging Writers Group; and guns, shooting and/or being shot are central themes in both – hence, presumably, their collective (if slightly cringey) title.

Girl Shut Your Mouth is a dystopian fable about four teenage girls (Shalom Brune-Franklin, Brittany Morel, Stephanie Panozzo and Jessica Paterson) in an imaginary but not unfamiliar society, one of whom was recently shot in an attack on their school, while another was scarred by an acid attack. The girls however mostly behave like stereotypical privileged first-world brats, are alternately jealous or mocking of each other’s injuries, and fantasize about being celebrity victims. The one who was shot (but survived) is being transferred from their school to a mysterious place where (she believes) you can do or have whatever you want, and which seems to function in their collective psyche like a kind of reality-TV-game-show version of Paradise (although the acid-attack victim is more sceptical about the true nature of this mysterious destination, which thus takes on more sinister undertones). Most of the play consists of the typical group-dynamics of teenage pecking-order behaviour, and takes place in an abstract confined space that could be a common room or dormitory in a boarding school; the most interesting scene occurs when two of them venture outside this protected space to a park at night in order to deliberately risk being shot by marauding groups of men (whom we never see).

The world of the play is reminiscent of the imaginary dystopias of Margaret Atwood, and shares their satirical tone and underlying critique of societies riven by violence against women, whether that violence is inspired by religion, misogyny, political ideology or simply the availability of guns. Unlike Atwood, however, there’s a lack of detail or clarity in the hybrid reality portrayed, as well as in the target of its critique – which sometimes seems to be directed less against their shadowy oppressors than the behaviour and delusions of the girls themselves, whose characterizations are as two-dimensional as a Hollywood teen-comedy of the most simplistic kind. The inexperience of the cast contributes to this: there’s a sense of newly-hatched graduates playing to type, where more seasoned young local performers might invest their roles with greater depth or individuality. The slightly flippant, post-Pop aesthetic of the direction, costumes, lighting and sound all heighten this sense of superficiality and make the girls’ situation seem somewhat abstract, leaving the play itself hovering uneasily between reality and fantasy, Brechtian parable and the theatre of the absurd.

More seriously for me, play and production skate over the differences between the causes and manifestations of violence against women in, say, Australia or the United States and Nigeria or Pakistan – differences which have as much to do with history, politics, culture, class and poverty in those respective countries as they do with more abstract notions of sexism and patriarchy as global or universal tendencies. In short: perhaps there’s a danger in ‘essentialising’ the nature of violence against women, no less than in ‘essentialising’ women themselves. The kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram or the shooting of Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban can’t in my view be conflated with the epidemic of high-school massacres in the US (or more recently Canada), domestic violence against women and children in Australia, or the systemic cruelty and injustice of their detention and treatment as asylum-seekers – all of which are invoked by the playwright in her program note. Nevertheless, the play got under my skin, which was clearly its purpose, and therefore at least one measure of its success.

After interval, Tonsils and Tweezers approaches the issue of violence, and particularly gun-violence, from a very different angle and to very different ends. Indeed, while the plot-point of a prospective mass shooting is raised in the first few minutes of the play, this turns out to be a dramatic device that effectively keeps us on tenterhooks while the rest of the play tells a much more intimate story – namely, how the sense of sadness and guilt that follows a catastrophic emotional loss might underlie the resentment and rage of someone who eventually ‘acts out’. In comparison with Girl Shut Your Mouth, which has a more broadly sociological perspective, Tonsils and Tweezers is more of a study in individual psychology, although race, class and masculinity also feed into the story.

Lewis (nicknamed ‘Tweezers’ and played by Hua Xuande in a powerfully contained slow-burn performance) works as a cleaner at McDonalds and is contemplating the prospect of a high-school reunion at which he might ‘do something’. ‘Tonsils’ (Lincoln Vickery) is a former school-friend, the play’s unreliable narrator, and may not be all that he seems. Another high-school cohort and former bully, Max (Adam Sollis) – who is also attending the reunion, now works in property development, and is rehearsing the role of Macbeth for an amateur theatrical production – and his aptly named stage-partner Beth (Megan Wilding) make up the quartet of characters who verbally spar and dance around each other like planets or complimentary particles in physics (much like the playwright himself, ‘Tonsils’ is fond of metaphors and anecdotes drawn from the realm of contemporary science).

The initial tone of the script and production is playful and even whimsical– to which O’Mahony’s direction and staging lend a welcome touch of the surreal (including a wonderful cameo appearance by one of the actors as a giant toothbrush). However this tone gradually gives way to something more direct and heartfelt in both the writing and performances (especially from Xuande), and the night I saw the show it took the audience on a journey from uncomprehending nervous laughter to the dawning silence of understanding.

In a way the two plays complement each other, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that a female playwright explores the issue of violence from the perspective of its victims, while her male counterpart explores the internal world of a potential perpetrator. As the saying goes: ‘A man’s number-one fear is of being laughed at; a woman’s number-one fear is of being killed.’ Perhaps it’s worth noting, too, that the dystopian outlook of Bezard’s play remains bleak to the end, whereas O’Mahony’s play concludes on a note of redemption.

This sense of complementarity and shift in perspective is supported by subtle changes of tone in the lighting and sound designs, and by the elegant simplicity of the set – a low square wall or frame which is lifted from horizontal to vertical between the two plays. In Girl Shut Your Mouth it suggests an enclosure or protective border between a safe but confined interior and a more dangerous exterior world. For Tonsils and Tweezers it provides a proscenium frame for the amateur production of Macbeth that ‘frames’ the action – and perhaps in reference to that play, a symbolic threshold between reality and hallucination, or the choice between life and death.

All in all then: despite its title, Loaded is a thoughtful and challenging double-bill of new work by local writers, a local creative team, and a cast of locally trained emerging actors - and as such a satisfying Fringe contribution by the local flagship State Theatre Company.


More about my Fringe World experiences next week, but I’ll conclude this Postcard with a quick homage to neo-country/folk/bluegrass/Appalachian singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and her regular guitarist and backing vocalist Dave Rawlings, who kicked off their Australian tour with a gig at Perth Concert Hall last Saturday. I’ve been a huge fan of theirs ever since a friend introduced me to their 2001 album Time (The Revelator), a dark masterpiece of minimalist Americana. I’ve now got to know all their recordings, from their 1996 debut Revival to their most recent 2011 release The Harrow and the Harvest, for which I have a special fondness after listening to it over and over on a recent road-trip with someone special. Welch writes haunting lyrics and melodies (especially for her mostly tragic character-based ballads) and has a voice that caresses, croons and drawls without ever becoming sentimental or straying off-pitch. Rawlings is a mesmerizing acoustic lead guitar player (Welch plays acoustic rhythm guitar and banjo, which she occasionally swaps with Rawlings along with her harmonica) and his ghostly backing vocal harmonies are as intricate as his guitar work, but he remains discreetly supportive of Welch as the dominant presence, despite his trademark cowboy hat and his dazzling smile.

Onstage their musical and personal symbiosis was even more compelling, especially in a venue like the Perth Concert Hall, which despite its size has a unique sonic warmth and intimacy. As a classical venue, it can feel a little formal for popular gigs, but here the acoustic and visual focus was perfect, as Welch and Rawlings play and sing without amps or fold-back speakers, but simply stand and deliver in front of two mics, their performance-style as bare-bones as their instrumentation or the sound production on their recordings. The set includes a generous selection of songs from most of their albums, but especially The Harrow and the Harvest; highlights for me were the heart-rending love-loss ballad ‘The Way It Will Be’, the plaintive nostalgia of ‘Down Along the Dixie Line’, the epic ‘Hard Times’ (about a farmer and his mule) and the elusive quicksilver mystery of ‘Six White Horses’ (complete with outbursts of thigh-slapping and folk-dancing from Welch accompanied by Rawlings on banjo and harmonica).

They’re one of the great duos of our time, and if you can still get tickets over east – well, as another inveterate cowboy-hat-wearer used to say: do yourself a favour.


Perth Fringe World runs till February 21st.

Loaded: A Double Bill of New Plays closes this Sunday 7th February.

Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings play at The Palais in Melbourne this Friday 5th and Saturday 6th and the following fortnight Friday 19th and Saturday 20th; The Enmore in Sydney next Monday 8th, Tuesday 9th  and the following Tuesday 16th ; the Tivoli in Brisbane next Thursday 11th and Friday 12th ; the A&I Hall in Bangalow next Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th; and the Playhouse in Canberra on Wednesday 17th.

 Humph reviews more Fringe shows next week.

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