Two Hands?

I was intrigued by a recent article in the NY Times on the current dominance of small plays.

According to the author this is largely a result of economic factors.  Rising costs, tighter budgets, stingier punters, all have helped bring about a renaissance in two and three handers.  This ‘much lamented shrinking of the theatre’ is a phenomenon which we in Australia have long been familiar with.  Our industry has contracted even more severely – for we were never so big to begin with – to the point where Australian playwrights write small, practical plays as a matter of course.  When was the last time an Australian playwright penned an epic on the scale of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage Country?  And why would they when they know it will never see the light of day.

But is economics the only thing at work here?

I don’t doubt how strongly controlling financial factors can be. But it seems something else is going on; a bigger, broader aesthetic shift taking place.  Here are a few highly praised artworks from recent times that spring to mind.  (This is an utterly unrepresentative and completely personal survey but anyway.)  In fiction, the all conquering The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  In film, last year’s game-changing Samson & Delilah by Warwick Thornton.  And in theatre, David Harrower’s Blackbird which I can’t help but feel has been the most influential play of recent years.

Despite the difference in art forms, there’s a connecting thread. It’s a sort of minimalism, a distillation of content and character, a return to what is essential about a form.  Whether it be the sparse, apocalyptic prose of McCarthy, the hunger and silence of Thornton’s Australian faces and landscapes, or the jagged, rupturing dialogue of Harrower, all three eschew complex representational affects in favour of a brutally honest aesthetic.  It’s a kind of hyper-realism; a heightened realism that paradoxically achieves its effect by a reduction of detail.  No flights of fancy, no glossy celluloid moments, no chorus lines of boa feathered girls, no multiple perspectives or cut-up narratives.  Just a plain old artistic sock to the jaw.

Blackbird

My gut instinct is that this is partly being driven not by economics but by changing audience expectations. We are such highly-trained and specialized consumers now: people are innately very canny when it comes to cinematic and theatrical technique.  From watching thousands of hours of television and film your average punter can cut through surfaces that would have bedazzled earlier generations.  In order to impress these folk you have to cut away all the blubber and give them something raw. If you listen to Warwick Thornton talk about Samson & Delilah and you get a strong sense of this.  He describes the need to peel back the layers to get at something true, something that might speak in a way that a complex psycho-drama could not, something anybody and everybody can watch – in any language – and still be moved by.

Of course (and out come my biases) this sort of thing has always been the purview of theatre. Especially so since film rose to the top of the cultural heap. Theatre, once the home of grand spectacle, has had to adapt and (returning to its roots) become small, localized and authentic.  Given that our industry has been lean from the beginning this is something that Australian theatre-makers learnt early on.  The virtues of minimalism, the necessity of invention, these are qualities that Australian theatre has always had in abundance.

But what is causing the shift in film and fiction?

Those with a historicist bent would probably pin it on the global financial crisis or something similar.  But I don’t think it can be so easily explained. I think Thornton is probably closer to the truth when he says we are actually getting smarter as cultural consumers.  Why else is every person I know currently consuming The Wire at a rate that makes a crack-cocaine addict look mild?  Why is it that movies like Inception and The Dark Knight are raking in coin when in previous eras we might have been flocking to Rambo?  Why, for example, did Baz Lurman’s Australia fail so dismally?  Was it simply a poor script?  Or was it because it had lost touch with the times?  Sure, Crocodile Dundee is still a lot of fun, but only for nostalgia value.

Perhaps this is far too optimistic (and self-congratulatory) but I’m an optimist at heart.

Let the old mantra ring out people: less is more!

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Manbeth

I was, I have to admit, a little worried as I made my way down the familiar set of stairs at 45 Flinders Lane last night.

The idea of an all-male Macbeth, set in a jail, has some cheesy potential.  It could have been cheesier than a deep fried wheel of King Island Blue Brie.  But a number of my most trusted carrier pigeons had informed of its excellence.  And, I’m happy to say, they were right.

From the moment I entered the theatre I was overwhelmed by the energy, intelligence and courage of this production.  Manbeth is ensemble theatre at its best.  There are no ‘outstanding’ performances here; and I mean that as high praise.  This is a murky, muddy world in which every player must slip and slide in and out of multiple characters in order to keep his head above water.  This requires theatricality – genuine theatricality – a quality which this production summons up in spades.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say I saw more of it in the first five minutes of Manbeth than can be squeezed from entire mainstage productions.

And the interpretation fits the text perfectly.  I understood immediately – from looking at the row of bare wooden benches, the dilapidated, stained white wall along the back of the space, the ensemble in their matching prison uniforms, the simplicity of the lighting with its long black shadows – that I had entered a disenchanted, Hobbesian world in which power was the only available language.  These naked men (often literally) are little more than a pack of dogs.  They circle one another, waiting for a sign to start tearing at each others throats.  This image is occasionally made concrete throughout the production when the ensemble bark, howl and play out canine tableaux.  Of course this is a mainstay of prison drama: the yard, the cellblock, these are dog eat dog places.

Like Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, this version of the Scottish Play seems to suggest that we could – any of us – in a given moment become a Macbeth or a Lady Macbeth.  And history, having begun with violence (rather like the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey), is destined to endlessly repeat a pattern of violence, suppression and revolution.  To me this is the difference between interpretation and window-dressing.  These days we see far too much of the latter, attempts to ‘modernise’ a text, to let it ‘speak’ once more (as if a true classic could forget its voice?).  It is like changing the colour of the curtains or moving the furniture around and expecting the shape of the room to change.  An interpretation, on the other hand, preserves the original intention or spirit of the text.  Rather than bringing it forward to us, it takes us back to it.  In this sense Manbeth is a triumph: it is hands down the strongest, most supple interpretation of The Scottish Play I’ve seen in a long while.

A few directional things I’d like to applaud.  First, clever use of space.  Too many shows at fortyfivedownstairs back themselves into a corner or play in a needlessly restricted space.  Manbeth manages to use the whole space effortlessly.  And I’ve never seen actors climb up those goddamn pillars before!  Second, I liked the way in which Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were split in two (good & bad).  It worked particularly well during their soliloquies, but also helped provide an extra layer of complexity in terms of character motivation and imagery throughout.  For example, with Banquo’s murder I got to see an image of Macbeth holding himself back, as if he wanted to stop what he had set in motion but could not.  Third, the use of all-male cast.  In any all-male scenario the issue of homoeroticism will inevitably raised.  Kudos to this production for tackling it head on: rather than a sprinkling of ‘tick the box’ moments there was a genuine thread woven right through the fabric of the piece.

Manbeth exceeded my expectations in every way.  If you like your theatre docile, pre-masticated and lifeless then it’s probably not for you.  However, if you want to be shaken by the scruff of the neck (until it almost hurts) then this is your show.

NB: My only reservation was the name.  Manbeth just doesn’t have the right ring?  It summons up images of men rolling around in baked beans or something.   Can anyone come up with a better one?

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Richard III

In Ewan Leslie, Simon Phillips has found the perfect vessel for Shakespeare’s vilest villain.

Leslie owns the stage as Richard. He drags his mangled foot across it so loudly it becomes a kind of second voice. He saws the air violently with his mangled arm and thrusts it so forcefully into his pocket that you fear he is about to burst his jacket lining. The half-demented grin on his face, and his tongue, which is often exploring the lesser-known corners of his mouth or lolling out over his lips, gives him the bizarre aspect of a maniacal child with some sort of mental defect. On one occasion I even saw a great cataract of saliva rush forth from his mouth as though he lacked control over his gastric juices.

It’s an incredibly visceral, palpable performance and one that deserves to remembered, most of all for its cheeky sense of humour.  Leslie brings a sense of contemporary humanity to this famously inhuman monster. It’s a joy to see him having such a good time in the role. He is constantly in conspiracy with the audience: we cannot help but like him. This binds us to him so that, in our own small way, we share in his fate.  It’s a very clever piece of playing which ensures that the more serious ensemble set-pieces function in counterpoint to, rather than as an extension of, our relationship to the protagonist.

Ultimately it is Leslie’s force of character which drives the production, giving it a dynamic balance of humour and menace, and it is his inexorable rise and fall that grips the audience. Which is all as it should be.

This Richard III actually kicks off with a scene from Henry VI, Part 3 in which we see Richard murdering Prince Edward. For an audience not familiar with the ins and outs of pre-Elizabethan history (as Shakespeare’s audiences were) it’s extremely helpful. Thus by the time we get Richard alone on stage by for his famous opening sililoquy

Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York

we have a sense that this is not a beginning but a continuation.   When Richard wins, brushes away or does away with subsequent characters (Lady Anne, his brother Clarence, the two young boys) as easily as if he were swatting at flies it never seems implausible but somehow intuitively and dramatically logical. Richard’s rise to power, we understand, will be as unstoppable as the tide of history itself.

Simon Phillips’ direction has a very filmic quality to it. Filmic is a word often used in a derogatory sense in the theatre, code for something that lacks essential life. But nothing could be further from the truth here.  This production teems with life.   Though every drop of technical capability is squeezed from the Sumner theatre – TV screens, projections, flying props, sets and actors, trapdoors, smoke machines, translucent scrims, glass walls, rising coffins and podiums, enormous revolving sets – none of it detracts from the theatricality of the piece. It is, rather like Benedict Andrew’s mesmerising Season at Sarsaparilla a couple of years ago, an example of how well-used technologies can open up new dimensions in an old text.

The most interesting element for me (again, like Sarsaparilla) was the use of the revolve. It gave the production a sense of perpetual movement, the scenes flowing seamlessly onwards, which I felt well suited well the onrushing, inevitable feeling of the play. This worked differently to the revolve used recently in Michael Kantor’s Elizabeth. There it seemed to create the exact opposite impression: of mice endlessly running on a treadmill but getting nowhere. With no walls, and very little in the way of props, Elizabeth‘s revolve helped Julie Forsyth achieve a sense of fixity and stillness even though she was a whirling dervish of movement. (The revolve seems to be in the zeitgeist at the moment: I saw Neil Armfield use it again in Peter Carey’s Bliss last night.)

In Richard III the revolve allows set changes so swift and sharp that they resemble a camera cutting between scenes. After the play I was talking with one of the actors and he mentioned something which helped the penny to drop: apparently the creatives were hugely inspired by the West Wing series.  They seem to have drawn on the way the camera often follows characters between rooms or down corridors (rather than cutting) which give that strong ‘halls-of-power’ feeling. In relation to Richard III this makes perfect sense considering the contemporary setting and the obvious references to US politics.

Me and me again

The whole idea of film, TV and new media feeding back into theatre raises some interesting questions about representation and what we expect from certain aesthetic forms. This excerpt from Marxist film theory (a massive tangent I know) might help make some sense of what is going on in theatre at the moment:

Just at the moment when black-and-white film had achieved a sufficient standard of technical sophistication to enable filming to be done on location more or less at will, essentially liberating both the camera and the narrative from the closeting confines of the studio, colour film was introduced.

As transformative as the look of colour would prove to be, its lighting requirements were such that in the early years, at least, location shooting was almost impossible. But once colour was introduced, black-and-white films immediately began to seem less expressive than they used to, their ‘reality effect’ loss its efficacy, until at a supreme moment of reversal black and white became (as it is now) the sign of art house expressionism. In deciding whether to shoot in black-and-white, or colour, directors had to choose between looking real, but feeling artificial, and feeling real, but looking artificial.

If we take these arguments and apply them to theatre it becomes possible to see similar forces at work. With the rise of new technologies, mainstage companies are now able to ‘represent’ reality in ways that we have become accustomed to seeing it, that is with filmic resemblance.  A backlash against this has led to a fetishisation of poor, trash or junkyard theatre, which revels in its aesthetic limitations and restrictions. By making a virtue out of bare necessity, and rejecting the need for versimilitude, these productions often seem to contain more life and authenticity. Like in film, these older but rejuvenated technologies (‘I will show you a man in a dog suit instead of a dog itself’) have come to possess a greater reality effect, whereas new technologies stink of false doubleness.

We even find this dialectic playing out in Richard III. I am thinking of the moment towards the end of the production when Richmond and Richard present themselves to us a politicians. With the live flesh-and-blood person before us, and the simulacra of their close-up face projected behind, we are forced to compare reality with unreality. First we get the media savvy Richmond, channeling Barrack Obama, a smooth and capable orator.  And then Richard comes to the podium, and in a lovely moment that endears us to him more than ever, he pauses.  He cannot, or will not, read his pre-written speech. He scrunches it up, looks directly at us and launches into a froth-mouthed tirade. With his hunched back hooked over the lectern, and his glowering face all screwed up, he looks neither smooth nor capable.  The strange and interesting thing is that, once again, we somehow prefer this ugly monster because he seems more real than his opponent.

There will always be those who will detest the MTC, and what they do, simply because they are the MTC. Which is entirely natural: we need to maintain the rage in the independent sector in order to maintain our own sense of identity. We have to denounce culture to have counter-culture, right? But for what it’s worth, I think this is an outstanding production. It is, dare I breath the words, mainstage theatre at its best.

Richard III is a triumph of large ensemble, set-piece direction. Like last year’s August: Osage County, it will prove to be a huge hit for MTC, and a well-deserved one.

I only have major gripe to air. The whole night I was gleefully waiting for Richard to chainsaw one of his victims to giblets.

My kingdom for a chainsaw?

How's my comb over?

As an afterthought…Leslie’s Richard looks a lot like Hitler, don’t you think?

But even more than the real Hitler he resembles Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Hitler in the Downfall, which has spawned so many great Youtube parodies, God bless ‘em!

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A World of Hits?

A mate of mine was recently at the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival in France.

His short, The Long Night, was picked up by talent scouts at another smaller festival late last year. You can check it out below: I don’t want to give anything away but let it suffice to say that when these vampires feel the heat of the sun they don’t just sparkle meaninglessly like certain other supposed vampires (who in actual fact probably spend far too much time doing their hair to enjoy a pint of human blood.)

He’s an ex-VCA grad from a couple of years back who’s been working his ass off to fund his film projects. And so it’s incredibly heart-warming (yes, my undead heart can actually beat at times) to see a well-deserving artist get recognition for their work. That fact that this recognition takes place overseas – and that we may not hear much about it back here – well, that’s just the way the artistic cookie crumbles in Australia, isn’t it?

Which leads me to a few other thoughts I’ve been meaning to post (for quite some time). It appears that 2009 has come to be ragarded as a watershed year in Australian film; there is a general consensus that something has finally fallen into place which has given us a bumper crop of quality features.

This was the view of Brian McFarlane, whose wrap-up ‘Resisting Tarantino’ (in the December issue of ABR) argued that our film industry has ‘not just come of age but has reached a new maturity in the ranks of international cinema.’ Over the course of 2009, McFarlane points out, we saw a slew of great films including: Mary & Max, Samson & Delilah, Disgrace, Van Diemen’s Land, Blessed, My Year Without Sex, Bastardy, The Cedar Boys, Last Ride, Beautiful Kate, Balibo, and last but not least, the incredible restoration print of 1970s classic Wake in Fright. As his title suggests, McFarlane’s thesis rests on the idea that in Australia we create movies that are fundamentally opposed to the banal, reductive and genre-driven commercial dross of Hollywood.

A completely different view can be found in Louis Nowra’s piece in the December Monthly. Unlike McFarlane, Nowra claims that our films are on the whole gloomy, depressive and driven by a mistaken sense of aesthetic value. (A strange, dialectical consequence of our nation of larakins and jokers, that we make such gloomy, wallowing dramas?) He argues that only only Hollywood can save us from ourselves; that we need formula-driven filmmaking if we are to sustain a viable industry and find a sense of identity not simply shaped around an immature opposition to commercialism.

So who is right?  Are we a nation of sour, curmudgeonly holier-than-thou filmmakers shunning Hollywood to our own detriment? Or are we a motley band of independent, intelligent, and artistically mature filmmakers glorying in our greatest artistic triumphs to date? In fact, both narratives tell part of the truth and McFarlane and Nowra are, in many ways, both right.

But an article in the Economist not too long ago (‘A World of Hits’) got me thinking that maybe there is a way to unpick this antagonism.  The article makes a compelling case that, in our media saturated and everything-is-immediate world, the blockbuster model has become not only dominant, but in actual fact, the only available model for big media businesses. In order to maintain viability the big studios have been forced to streamline their budgets around huge sequel-orientated franchises such as Spiderman and Lord of the Rings. These franchises essentially bankroll the funding of subsidiary studios like Miramax, Searchlight and Hopscotch which focus on indie and arthouse films. According to market research, the majority of people only go to the movies a few times per year, which means that, in terms of aesthetic taste, they lack discernment. On the other hand, those minorities that attend more regularly (and can afford to) have, as you would expect, much more developed and hence narrower tastes. The studios are well aware of this, which is why blockbusters like Avatar do so well, because only they, in their ludicrous breadth and simplicity, can reach the largest possible market.

The Economist’s conclusion is that – contrary to many predictions – in a globalized market studios are ever more dependent upon their blockbusters. There is no sense that bringing a world market within Hollywood’s reach has made possible greater diversification in product. In actual fact, it has necessitated greater homogenisation.  This is borne out by recent news that Avatar has broken all global box office records, including the fastest ever and largest sales on DVD, and that James Cameron has gone to work on Avatars 2 & 3.

Which leads me on to a more disturbing thought: many years ago Theodor Adorno observed the birth of the ‘culture industry’. He coined the term, having been unsatisfied with the ‘mass culture’ that he and Horkheimer used in their early drafts, to describe the increasingly prevalent situation in which ‘culture intentionally integrates its consumers from above’ and so reduces the masses so that they ‘are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation; an appendage of the machinery.’ And here we get Adorno’s fullest, darkest vision, of a world in which aesthetic autonomy is literally obliterated by the culture industry in its mechanical efficacy and desire to map the profit motive onto all existing cultural forms.

Their conclusion, which I have never been able to fully accept, is that enlightenment produces its opposite, anti-enlightenment. In Adorno’s words: ‘the progressive technical domination over nature (enlightenment) becomes mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering consciousness (anti-enlightenment).’

And so we come back to where I began, with a young, aspiring Australian director heading over to a prestigious festival to promote his work and bask in the warmth of international recognition. And my personal view, which is that Australian film should continue to try and forge it’s own, unique identity in the face of the dictates of the mass-market. Because once you go down the formula-road it becomes your crutch…and then your whole world.  A world of hits, we might say.

And if you’re going to work with vampires, please, don’t have them sparkle in the sun, make them explode in a ball of flame!

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Call me Orson

…and that is the key to it all.

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REVENGE

This amazing Moby-Dick graphic was made by Mark Weaver for the Kitsune Noir Poster Club and is available as a print on their website, which also includes wicked posters of such classics as Slaughterhouse 5, Walden and The Road.

From Hell’s heart I salute thee!

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Van Diemen’s Land

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Almost a year ago now I was in Tassie canoeing up the Gordon River.

Anybody who has spent time in that remote south-western corner of the Island will know what an incredibly remote, frigid, and hostile landscape it is.  It rains, on average, three days from five, and even in the middle of summer temperatures can suddenly plummet as the Roaring Forties come crashing in after circumnavigating half the globe.

It’s rugged, incredibly so.  And the foremost impression that I took away with me, after our 10 days of slogging it through hail, rising tides and bitter Arctic winds, was that this was a place fundamentally alien to everything which we call human.  The ancient forest – the towering myrtle, Huon pine, and sassafras – is as moved by the fate of individuals beneath its leafy crown as one might imagine Zeus to be, sitting aloft Mount Olympus, gazing with the impartiality of eternity upon the capricious struggles of Achilles, Hector, Priam and all the rest.  As things come and go, live and die, the forest barely blinks an eyelid.

Which is why, having experienced Macquarie Harbour and the Gordon firsthand, I was so keen to see Van Diemen’s Land. And, I am happy to say, I was in no way disappointed.  This is a masterful movie, and deserves to be heralded as the most important event in Australian film since probably The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith or Mad Max.

There’s a lot to celebrate: the jaw-dropping cinematography, the incredible performances by half of Melbourne’s finest actors (Redding, Stone, Wright et al), the singular focus of the story with its tight-lens approach to character and dramatic writing, the psychological richness and depth of the characters and the landscape etc etc.  It’s also an very intriguing re-telling  of what has long been a stock-in-trade story to illustrate the horrors of the Australian colonial experience: a bunch of poor, down-on-their-luck convicts escape from Sarah Island – purportedly the worst prison in the world at that time, hence the fond moniker ‘Hell’s Gates’ – thinking they can trek overland to civilisation, and end up one by one cannibalising one another until, at the last, only one remains: Alexander Pearce.  His very name is synonymous with a certain Hobbesian brand of Australian colonialism which sees the convicts as men gone wild on a bitter shore, in other words, having reverted to a state of nature.  Marcus Clarke, of course, famously based his monstrous Gabbett on Pearce.  And a great many others have found literary mileage in his story.

If you were to think of Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and blend it with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line you might get an idea of how this film looks and where it draws its intellectual strength from.  It is, for me, without doubt the film of the year.

What a marvellous piece of hungry silence.

van-diemen-s-land-0

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