The Theatre Wars

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First there was the History Wars.  Now we have the Theatre Wars.

The battle lines are drawn, the forces marshaled, the trenches dug, the artillery called in.  And it’s about time, if you ask me.  We need to confront these issues head on.  We need to breach once and for all our great Australian silence.

I know, I know, all of this must sound incredibly hyperbolic for a discussion about theatre. After all, it’s not sheep-stations, right? Or is it?

If our stages are, as Shakespeare tells us, all the world, then surely whatever happens onstage must be a reflection of what happens offstage.  And so, because I know there’s a hidden sting in all this, I’m being quite deliberate in choosing military metaphors.  It’s important, I think; important to emphasise the fact that there is a war of a kind being fought in this country.

And in fighting this war, history and theatre are not as far from each other as we often presume.  If history is what hurts, then perhaps theatre is a looking-glass through which we magnify history: a specific sort of history, however, not history as fact but as representation.  In other words, perhaps theatre is a way of finding out what hurts?

The catalyst for all this was of course Julian Meyrick’s production of The Birthday Party.

The debate around this production has been simmering for some time (as can be seen from the deluge of commentary online) but now it has flared right up.  In fact, it’s become a bonfire.  The difficult thing is trying to work out who’s tied to the stake: Meryrick, the critics, or the whole darned lot of them?

Who wins and who loses out of this?  What is at stake?  And why are so many normally quiet and thoughtful people behaving so viciously towards one another?  Clearly something has happened, some raw nerve has been exposed, and that alone bears close examination.

Before I go any further with this, I think it’s worth saying that any production that causes this much of a stir has to have done something right. Not that the ultimate goal of theatre must be to  cause disagreement.  But there’s a good argument to be made that art, by definition, should get people talking, arguing and fighting for something.

Let me try and briefly summarise the shots fired thus far.

It all started with Cameron Woodhead’s review for The Age (not online) in which he singled out Isaac Drandic and gave him a particularly vicious drubbing (leaden and inert…an actor reciting lines in the earliest phases of rehearsal).  This was followed by Alison Croggon’s review for The Australian and a series of longer reflections on Theatre Notes.

In her review Alison argued, among other things, that:

What is missing…is the uneasy sense of impending terror that underlies the laughter.  The human ugliness and savagely bent eroticism that make the play so disturbing are rendered in soft focus; comic, rather than frightening.

On Theatre Notes she expanded on her comments, discussing more fully the significance Stanley’s character and Drandic’s performance:

On the night I saw it, Drandic was a blank: he responded catatonically, with none of the repressed violence so characteristic of Shaw’s performance in the film. This gives the performance nowhere to go, since in the final scene he really is catatonic; because he has been emotionally blank from the beginning, his inability to speak is much less devastating. And it neutralises many of the exchanges in the play, as Stanley is always a passive victim.

Then came the flare from the other side of no-man’s-land.  The director, supposed to sit quietly in the trenches while the critics’ mortar flies overhead, suddenly fired back.  Julian Meyrick”s response was posted on the official MTC website:

I’m sure both critics said what they felt…but in shaping their responses, everything about The Birthday Party that is different, new, challenging and important has been swept aside.

You might get the impression from the reviews that cross-racial casting…went on all the time, instead of the reality, that it almost never happens.  An indigenous cast nailing The Birthday Party is an indication that a new era in casting has arrived.  It’s a shift from why (why cast Aboriginal actors) to why not (why not cast Aboriginal actors).

And the point is a good one.  The Birthday Party, with less pomp and ceremony than one might expect, has ushered in a new era of casting practices (at least, we hope so).

In this day and age, every director worth their salt should be asking themselves, as Lee Lewis says, what the political significance is of having an all white cast, and what that says about our national identity and how it is projected onstage.  This applies not just to Aboriginal actors, but actors of all different racial backgrounds.

But this is simply not the sort of thing that critics think about when they review a show.  And fair enough, that would be to review a show by what it achieves offstage and not what it achieves (taking casting as a given) onstage.

A critic cannot help but compare what they see on the night with what they envisage in their mind’s eye, in a Platonic sense.  They make an aesthetic judgment and inform us whether desire eclipsed reality or vice-versa.  And this is perfectly reasonable; after all, it’s what critics do.

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So how do we steer a course between these two perspectives, both of which are valid and deserve our sympathy?

Julian’s rejoinder may be at times plaintive and overwrought, but it’s sincere, and comes from what I believe is the right place.  Similarly, Alison’s response on Theatre Notes,  makes an irrefutable argument for the necessity of clear headed criticism.

Since the furore broke there has been such an outpouring of words (mainly on Theatre Notes) that I think it’s fair to say that this is no longer an isolated spat but a much larger and more symbolic tussle for supremacy between cultural creators and cultural interpreters.

Unfortunately, a great many of the hand grenades lobbed have been from behind the facade of anonymity, which I find quite difficult to swallow.

There has also been a flurry of commentary in the mainstream press.  Critics Raymond Gill and Peter Craven have both waded into the debate.  Raymond Gill’s article in The Age professed to take no sides but then politely pointed out that:

The unwritten law is that artists should never respond to negative criticism because it only bolsters the critic’s power and ego.

Peter Craven’s longer response, also published in The Age, was more unambiguous about things:

Julian Meyrick should be grateful to critics…who pay him the courtesy of telling him the ways in which a production of his may fail.

Now, I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but critics don’t visit the theatre out of courtesy.  They do it because they get paid to do so.  Whereas a director, like Meyrick, is paid to create the theatre they see.  So, as a simple logic would have it, it is they who should be grateful, for it is his job that prima facie provides them with theirs.

The other lesson we learn from Craven is that, in this debate, we are dealing with a theatre production for heaven’s sake and not with interventions and land rights.

Which takes me back to the start of this mini-essay and my basic premise that history and theatre (or politics & theatre) are not so far apart as we think.  And, if we are willing to concede that, then we must be willing to concede that perhaps critics should be applauding diverse ethnic casting (given that casting is the main vehicle through which we can change conservative theatre pratices).

Perhaps, if I can add my two cents, at the heart of this dispute is not so much a disagreement over whether a particular production (acting, directing, casting etc) is any good, but rather a confusion as to where we think Australian theatre should be headed.

Julian Meyrick thinks one thing, and acts on it, putting his casting where his mouth is.  Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead think another, and tell us whenever a production doesn’t match up with what that.

All three are trying to have an impact on the unfolding of our cultural history.  And all three, no doubt, are sadenned by the fact that blood has been spilt over the performance of a wonderful play by Harold Pinter.  Personally, it does saddens me to hear a devoted and talented director at the top of his game publicly ponder whether it’s even worth continuing.

But maybe this is exactly what we need?  A little blood spilt.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s exactly what surly old Harold would have wanted?

This has turned into a huge rant, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me.

There can be no doubt that there have been too few non-white faces on our mainstream stages.  No director in Australia would disagree with that.  And in this, as always, the argument has not been so much about what we want to see, but how to make it happen.

Unfortunately, we haven’t proven up to the task, and have fallen far behind other parts of the world.  And so, we can no longer nod our heads with Shakespeare and say that all the worlds a stage. Because, the truth is, our stages reflect only a small part of it.

Whatever we think The Birthday Party good, bad or otherwise, we cannot deny that it is an important production.  I myself argued that it was well worth seeing.  And I know plenty of people who saw it and loved it.  And plenty more who blatantly disliked it.  I don’t have a problem with any of that; as I said, I think it’s a mark of artistic integrity if a production is divisive.

I guess where I find this whole debate a little confused is that, what is worthy about the production (in terms of process) has not been the major focus, whereas its critical reception and flaws have been.  And this has pulled focus from what could have been more of a celebration.

I only hope that this debate helps us to better understand each other and that, when the last shot is fired, we can reach a truce that involves a true reassessment of what, why, and how we do what we do in Australian theatre.

Let’s not make the Theatre Wars a lasting part of our culture like the History Wars.  Let’s make them a step in the right direction.

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16 Comments

Filed under Politics, Theatre

16 responses to “The Theatre Wars

  1. Interesting post, David. War or discussion? I prefer to think of it as the latter. I confess my heart sank when I saw the “poison pen” headlines – not again, I thought. (I’ve been there before, and nothing tires or bores me more than this kind of artistic mud wrestling). And if it is just about a battle for supremacy between interpreters and creators, I’m out of here. What a ridiculous and pointless battle that would be.

    I don’t agree that creators ought to be silent. Why should they be? They haven’t been in the past: all sorts of artists, from Eugene Ionesco to Charles Baudelaire, from Osip Mandelstam to Linsday Anderson to GB Shaw, from Octavio Paz to George Orwell to Ken Loach to Hans Magnus Enzensberger to Pinter himself, (I know, random list, but hey, hundreds and hundreds over hundreds of years) have been outspoken about what they think art is and what it’s for. Why should Australian artists be any different, out of some idea of good manners?

    The fact that people are talking, disagreeing, arguing, suggests that people feel strongly, they look and they think. Isn’t that encouraging rather than otherwise? Isn’t art meaningless if people don’t feel they have a stake in it, that at some level it belongs to them too? This idea that artists or audiences or critics have some kind of monopoly on its “meaning” is destructive and stifling.

    Personally, I don’t think Australian theatre “should be” headed anywhere. One artist does one thing, another does another; to think that a culture should move as a monolithic whole is anathema to me. Nor, as a critic, do I think it’s for me to presume to say what artists – or anyone – ought to be thinking. I can only say what I think. It’s my job to look at what’s there and to attempt to divine what is happening now, to attempt to put it into some kind of context, and to generate interest and debate. I have never been interested in being right, though I do put no small amount of effort into the attempt to be accurate.

    A couple of small points – did anyone, really, not “applaud” the diverse casting? And, actually, I don’t get paid for the bulk of my work – the blog takes up immeasurably more energy and time than the newspaper reviews. And the reason this play’s critical reception has hit the headlines rather than anything else is in fact due to Julian’s decision to highlight it. As Craven pointed out, the reviews were “temperate” (although I confess I haven’t read Cameron’s).

    • Hi Alison,

      I have to admit, the war metaphor is hysterical. But the reason I am putting my foot forward in that regard is that, as can be seen from all the comments, people are taking this incredibly seriously and in that sense it does seem that something larger is at stake.

      I totally hear your point about criticism not being driven by dollars. There’s no money in any of this: making, debating, reviewing, the whole shebang. If we wanted to get rich we’d all join a corporate law firm I guess. (And I know the blog must consume an inordinate amount of time. I don’t know how you do it. I’m finding even a few posts a week a massive drain on other writings.)

      And yes, it’s definitely encouraging that people are talking and debating. And that’s what I felt was the major positive to come out of the production; and which, in itself, is a major achievement regardless of any other successes the production may have had.

      Whether Australian theatre should be headed anywhere, well, I have to disagree here. Because there is a very clear agenda that has been pursued with casting practices: i.e. all-white casts on mainstages since colonisation. And, in steering a new course towards cross-racial casting, we have to be barefaced about the fact that it is an unashamedly political project. Sure, monolithic structures are never a good thing; but maybe we need to invoke monoliths in order to try and break down a previously existing and even more insidious monolith?

      A few people did applaud the casting of this production, and I know you were one of them. In fact, I have read your blog avidly for a number of years and it was one of the main inspirations for sitting down and trying to nut out my thoughts on theatrical issues.

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts,

      David

  2. Thanks David. I’m enjoying your blog so I hope you keep up the work, although I do understand the toll it takes.

    I sure would be sorry if all this fuss did only amount to a “war”, though. I was a young poet at the end of the so-called Poetry Wars of the 70s and 80s, and if anything has made me (as with a good many poets my age) allergic to polarities and entrenched positions, it’s been that. All you end up with is scorched earth and bitter people.

    But really, it’s the artists who determine the course. It’s absolutely true that mainstage casts reflect a society that is very different from that walking outside their doors in the streets, and that is a problem, for them and everyone else. Me, I don’t think monolithic structures EVER work for artists. To introduce one to replace another merely begs the question. What we need are flexible structures which create spaces for diverse adventures, for large and small projects, for questioning and risk, and a culture that invests itself in these things as being of lively value and interest to its own questionings about what it means to be a human being alive at the present moment, after all this history, poised before this ever uncertain future. I think everything else would simply follow.

    • Hmm yes, we don’t want bitter people and scorched earth. But I guess in this case it’s already too late. By Julian’s tone it seems he’s already been wounded.

      And I tend to agree with you that art & structure are about as closely aligned as system & chaos. An open market with various spaces for audiences large and small, infused with risk and questing the value of past, present, and future…that sounds pretty damn good. But in practice it’s very utopian: given that all funding comes from centralised sources. And me, for one, I wouldn’t mind setting my sights a little lower so that, at the very least, we can fix up this casting process and catch up with our brothers and sisters in New York and London.

      Glad you like the blog! And thanks for your kind words under my Mukka post. (I’m still scratching my head trying to puzzle out why that didn’t cause more of a stir…)

      • A few bruises are par for the course, but they needn’t amount to bitterness, which is as much about an artist’s inner ecology as anything that’s going on in the wider culture. I’ve met people who have undergone terrible things that put what goes on in the artworld right back in its proper perspective (it’s only art, after all), who have nevertheless managed to remain amazingly unbitter. To clarify, I don’t think bitterness and anger are synonyms; it seems to me that anger is healthy but bitterness is not, and Australian culture has tended rather to breed the latter. As Blake said, “Expect poison from standing water”. I rather like Eddie Perfect’s attitude… (or Robyn Archer’s, come to that, who breezily says that she doesn’t take any notice of reviews. In her case, I believe her.)

        What I’m suggesting is actually not as utopian as all that, given there are plenty of models for such things. There are cultures in which art is taken seriously as a locus for serious questions, which is always a relief to know and experience. Why shouldn’t Australia be one of them? (Answers on the back of a postcard…) As for the structural question: that’s about imagination and intelligence much more than it is about money, or who is funding. Marcus Westbury bangs along about some of these issues; but for concrete examples, Berlin’s enlightened artist-led urban developments is one kind of model, or as a corporate example, even the kind of polymorphous structure that characterises the Malthouse’s approach to mainstage theatre.

        The Cartoucherie complex in Paris was built by the artists themselves – among them the directors Ariane Mnouchkine, Jean-Louis Benoît, Didier Bezace, Jacques Nichet, all major players in French theatre, who literally did the bricks and mortar in 1968. Nobody was waiting for anyone to give them permission, and they created their own legitimacy. In the end, that’s how things happen. It can be easier or not, depending; but in the end, it’s never actually easy to make anything.

        I realise I’ve rather ranted here; it’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’m avoiding what I ought to be doing…! Sorry about that, and thanks for the space.

      • Ha ha yes, Sunday afternoon’s are good for blogging away.

        No problem with bruises, that’s for sure. No one would venture into the public arena if they didn’t have a certain thickness of skin. And, sure, people who work in other areas of life have far worse experiences. My partner’s a lawyer at Vic Legal Aid so we have a lot of discussion over dinner about, well, all sorts.

        Speaking of other countries, yes there are places that take art seriously as part of public life. France springs to mind having recently seen The Cove and knowing how much of that work has been celebrated in Europe. And there’s no shortage of great work coming out of New York, or Chicago for that matter. I like the idea of building a theatre oneself: I’ve been scouting around Northcote / Thornbury for some time now for an old building to take over and turn into The Whale. I envisage an in-the-round style theatre, maybe a ramshackle replica of Stratford’s The Rose. (It’s an absolute fantasy I know…but I still think about doing it).

        To bring Blake in,

        I was angry with my friend:
        I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
        I was angry with my foe:
        I told it not, my wrath did grow

        Which is why, as I said in the post, I think that getting this discussion out in the open is a far better thing than letting it simmer underground.

        I just feel that, when I read something like Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers and then see the dialogue shapes around this, like James Boyce’s Van Diemen’s Land (which you yourself mentioned) or the new history of Sydney The Colony, then I think to myself that there is a healthy intellectual discourse in history. Whereas in theatre…

        And so maybe these are more appropriate:

        Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.
        The cut worm forgives the plow.

  3. Pingback: a discussion across the road « The Melbourne Town Players

  4. Pingback: a discussion across the road « actual/ideal

  5. I think that getting this discussion out in the open is a far better thing than letting it simmer underground.

    Oh yes! And it keeps people like us off the streets…

  6. Francie Komen

    Dear David,

    My name is Francie Komen I believe I am a descendant of Renanghi, william Dutton’s Aboriginal partner. I saw your play convincing ground online and thought you might be able to share some information with me re: Renanghi and her life with William.
    any help much appreciated.

    My email: francie_komen65@hotmail.com

    Cheers

    Francie

    • Hi Francie,

      Great to hear from you. Did you get my email?

      I would be more than happy to share with you the historical research I have on Dutton & Renanghi. There’s quite a bit of material that I dug up in the State Library and in Portland. It’s very fragmentary but it might give you more of a picture.

      Speak soon,

      David

      • Leslie Alderton

        Hi David. I am an Aboriginal student studying towards an Honours program at Ballarat University. I am currently researching Aboriginal women brought to mainland Australia by sealers and whalers in the early years of the 19th century. I am hoping that you may be willing to share your information on William Dutton and his partner Renanghi with me. I look forward to hearing from you.

        Les

      • Hi Les,

        I’d be happy to help.

        I’ve got a fair bit of material I dug up in the State Library and elsewhere that I can point you towards. And I’ve got some material of my own based on people I’ve spoken to down at Portland etc. What sort of project are you working on – is it History mainly? If it would be helpful to you we could meet up one day in the city after work and have a chat about it? Are you ever down Melbourne way?

        Best to get in touch with me via email – david [at] whitewhaletheatre [dot] com

        Cheers

        David

  7. gisele

    Hello,
    is there anything new concerning this Whale in-the-round theatre project?
    I am writing from France where in-the-round theatres don’t exist (there was one in in Paris until the 80s) and it is a form I am fond of, so I try to keep up with venues and productions in-the-round throughout the world and collect the information on my blog (theatres.en.rond.free.fr) so I would be very happy to hear from the Whale if it comes to birth.

    • Hi Gisele,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      I’m not sure which Whale-in-the-round project you mean? We did at one stage have some crazy plans about building such a theatre in Melbourne but we didn’t really have the financial resources to back such a large scale development. Is that what you heard about? Or was there some other theatre building mooted?

      I’d love to hear more about theatre in Paris from you. So is it all proscenium-arch style theatres you have there? Is no one doing Shakespeare in the round? Or Molliere?

      Cheers

      David

  8. hi, that’s a nice transfer. There is many mistakes but the water is here.

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