Monthly Archives: July 2010

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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