Category Archives: Theatre

And on the Same Day, This…

This just in, from today’s Australian:

FOREIGN-BORN athletes will have their Australian citizenship fast-tracked so they can represent the nation at international sporting events under proposed new laws.

It is hoped the changes will lead to more gold medals for Australia at sporting events such as the Olympics, Senator Evans said.

“These changes will create a smoother path to citizenship and enable Australia to benefit from the talents and skills they bring to our country.”

They will be making the same legislative changes for members of the Arts sector, I presume?

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Put the Creators at the Top

Wonderful to read this today over at Marcus Westbury‘s blog:

I wonder whether Australia’s European cultural history has somehow left us wanting to keep the artefacts and trappings of European culture while skipping the forces that led to it.

We should flip the traditional hierarchies over. Rather than place our culture centres at the top, it makes far more sense to think of them as at the bottom. It is time we placed far more emphasis on creation and development than reproduction, middle management and bureaucracy by thinking about those street-level tasks and challenges.

Time to recognise that culture — and, by extension, art — is not large and grand but small, dynamic, co-operative and competitive creation and to nurture it right at that point. Time to flip the system over and put the bureaucrats and administrators on the bottom and put the creators back at the top.

Amen to that, brother, and seven hail mary’s to boot.

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Up the Savage River

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Up a lazy river where the robin’s song
Wakes up in the mornin’, as we roll along
Blue skies up above, everyone’s in love
Up a lazy river, how happy we will be,
Up a lazy river with me.

Savage River, the play by Steve Rodgers, ain’t got nothin’ in common with Louis Armstrong’s rendition of Lazy River.  Fair enough?

Matthew Clayfield thinks not.  His review of the Sydney season at Griffin Theatre, Mild Ride takes Familiar Path, would have you believe that it is, well, a mild ride that takes a familiar path:

Rodgers’s characters sail close to cliche: the naive teenager on the cusp of manhood, the father trying to do the right things in all the wrong ways (with the requisite inability to communicate and barely suppressed capacity for violence), the fugitive ex-stripper with a heart of gold.

I have to take issue with this.

I saw Savage River in Melbourne recently and loved it.  I found the writing elegant, intelligent, and sincere; the characters truthful (having spent time in Western Tas) and clearly sketched; the performances balanced, poignant, and rich with dark humour; the design simple, effective, and thematically complex; and the direction subtle, restrained, and finely nuanced.

But the production (and what I think of it) is besides the point; what I wish to draw attention to here is the slipshod way in which the writing has been reviewed.

Clayfield’s two major criticisms are that the writing is cliched and predictable.  What does it mean to say that a character is cliched?

A cliché (from the French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect.

To be accurate in describing a character as cliched, then, we need to be clear about a) what the character’s original meaning was, and, b) how, through overuse, that meaning has been lost.

Clayfield’s description of the characters in Savage River does not demonstrate that they are cliched, merely that they are based on generic types.  This is only halfway towards a valid criticism.  Telling us a script employs types is no different to telling us that it is written in English or that it obeys the rules of grammar.  All forms of expression are inherited, recycled and redeployed, artistic expression included.

Is Shakespeare’s crippled monster Richard III any less enjoyable because we know that he is built upon a thoroughly mined tradition of Elizabethan villains?

Ian McKellan's Richard III

Ian McKellan's Richard III

As Edgar Allan Poe was fond of saying, The truest and surest test of originality is the manner of handling a hackneyed subject.

And, to my mind, Savage River achieves a great deal with what is surely a hackneyed subject: the Australian bucolic.  (Though I challenge anyone to find a subject that is not hackneyed in our media-saturated modern world).

I think, to be honest, what’s at the heart of all this (and it’s not just Clayfield, I’ve read a host of similar reviews and opinions) is our growing cultural boredom with politically motivated realism.  It’s perceived as formally uninventive, stylistically dull, tainted by didacticism, and worst of all, it’s old and so can’t possibly be fashionable.  Perhaps the argument could be summed up as follows: if you’ve read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, seen Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, waded through a few recent Aussie history books (Van Diemen’s Land, The Colony) or sat through The Man from Mukinupin, then perhaps you’re entitled to take a break from the legacy of Australian colonial guilt.

But isn’t this sort of thinking, at day’s end, fundamentally conservative?  What about the theatre-goer sitting next to you who still thinks Australian history is 99% comprised of  bushrangers, explorers and the Gold Rush?

Is it that we are embarrassed by our Australianess?  Or is simply it that having something to say is embarrassing?

For my money, Savage River was a play that dealt with complex, nagging historical issues in a subtle and compelling fashion.  Not everything on the stage has ape post-theatre German or In-ya-face British theatre to be of value, does it?  What could possibly be more valuable to us than shedding new light on the lives of ordinary Australians?  Would it be any better, for example, to program another play set in an inner-city apartment, at a dinner party, with a host of middle-to-upper class characters who talk, act and look exactly like us?

Are there any other playwrights out there – other than Steve Rodgers – who have written a monologue on the art of mutton-birding?

Too many well-deserving productions are currently being canned, in the mainstream press, because of critical whimsy.  Savage River was a wonderful piece of new Australian writing and should have been celebrated as such.

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A Happy Family Portait

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The Cove

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I meant to put this up weeks ago but I got a bit distracted.

In fact, there’s a lot of things I’ve been meaning to put up.  Oh well…

There were many things I liked about The Cove.  And there were a few things I didn’t.  But I find these days I am more interested in thinking about what worked in a show than I am dissecting its shortcomings.  Which is difficult because, to misquote Tolstoy, All happy productions are alike, each unhappy production is unhappy in its own way.

Having directed a few plays, I’ve come to appreciate the myriad pitfalls and crocodiles that can wound or slay a well-intentioned production.  These flaws are invariably the same (poverty of concept / overwrought concept; poor design /excessive design; underplayed acting / overplayed acting) which means that, when we talk about a play in this way, we are more akin to a plumber than anything else, reporting on whether the tap is running hot or cold.

The point of all this is merely to say that, for me, intention – dare I say, truth – is more compelling than flaws in the glass.

But it’s extremely hard to see how a critical language can be formed around something as slippery and hotly disputed as the truth.  Our critical concepts are, by necessity, largely negative, whereas our idea of a perfect production is sublime, that is, essentially indescribable.

I’ve been turning over this question of how to approach theatre critically.  Which is why it was such a breath of fresh air to stumble across Bob Brustein recently:

I was appalled, actually, at the fact that we would end our experience of watching a play by talking about the acting, talking about the directing, talking about the technical work, talking about the management issues, but we would never, ever, talk about the play.

Sadly this remains largely true.  Most people, I think, formulate their opinion of a play by going through a kind of production checklist: what was wrong with the [insert creative element here] of the show.  This sort of thinking is not only banal (mistaking surface for depth) but, in the wrong hands, can be dangerous.

Isn’t a play more than the sum of its parts?

As Brustein goes on to say:

And so I thought my most important function as a critic was to try to find out what these artists…were trying to do, and then to see whether they did that successfully.  But at least to try to find out what the intention was before I rejected it.

Intention screams out of a good production.  A poor production, on the other hand, is conspicuous by virtue of its absence.  These aren’t concrete rules, an inscrutable production can be rewarding too.  But the exception proves the rule: in theatre, the intention is all.

Which brings me back to The Cove.

I love the Dog Theatre in Footscray.  It’s a hidden gem of a venue.  And it’s such a healthy change for us Inner North theatre snobs to head out West (a region of Melbourne not being synonymous with live theatre) and see such talented, dedicated people making possible a night of independent theatre.

I was really there to see To Whom it May Concern, a play about an old man, soon to die of terminal illness, who cannot decide what to do with his mentally impaired son.  Riddled with cancer, in excruciating pain, the old man wants to give himself over to the professional care of a hospital.  But he cannot leave his son; he tries, but he cannot.  It’s a portrait of a universe indifferent and entropic.  It’s probably not your average punter’s idea of a good night out.  But the writing is so good (restrained, effectual, relentless in pursuit of its characters) that a strange thing happens: in the midst of this wasteland, we find humour, growing like a weed out of the cracks in the pavement.

Only being able to utter one syllable “Da” is a huge challenge for an actor.  But Matthew Molony achieved wonders with it.  And Bruce Myles, as the father, was tender, yet brutal, careful, yet carefree, and rich with bathos.  It’s a testament to the strength of these performers that they can magic up something so simple, slender, and affecting out of ultimately such a short sequence of words.

The accompanying play Somewhere in the Middle of the Night was about an old woman with dementia, losing her grip on reality, and her courageous daughter, who takes the role of death’s handmaiden.  I enjoyed this piece – particularly Jan Friedl’s performance as the mother – but didn’t feel it was on par with its counterpart. There is fine material to be mined in the role-reversal between a parent and a child.  Unfortunately Danielle Carter kept playing the issue, rather playing away from it, which made the dialogue feel self-conscious, and the silences hollow, rather than the other way round.

Keene’s writing is obsessively concerned with our most basic existential nightmares.  His plays throw up, again and again, a world that is simultaneously callous and caring, inhumane and humane, and ask: how are we to live?  This textual intention, I believe, would have been better served had all of the pieces (perhaps not all eight, but four, five, even six) been performed together.  Through greater juxtaposition, as in a collection of short stories, these fragments might have started to body forth a darker, shadowy whole.  As it was, this possibility was only hinted at.

Oh and where was the cove by the way?

A short disclaimer.  Lok Tan & Geoff Chan – the sound designers – are close friends of mine.  They have composed for the Whale on a number of occasions (Macbeth Re-ArisenMelburnalia, and Melburnalia No. 2).

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Theatre Wars Reach the UK

It’s not everyday an Australian debate causes a stir overseas.

But our antipodean argument over The Birthday Party has done just that.  The Guardian, a newspaper of some repute, has a feature up on its Theatre Blog about the dispute.

Says the Guardian’s blogger, Chris Wilkinson:

Perhaps the core problem is that director and critics see the role of the production to be fundamentally different.  Meyrick thinks it succeeds because it is aiming to spark a much wider debate about Australian culture; the critics think it fails because, as Croggon puts it, “the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle on to Pinter’s work” is missed.

If I had to choose between praising theatre for examining society or praising it for re-examining the theatre, I would certainly opt for the former.

Amen to that, brother,  I couldn’t agree more.

McCann crosses to the table, left, sits, picks up the paper and begins to tear it into strips.

McCann crosses to the table, left, sits, picks up the paper and begins to tear it into strips. But is it the Age, the Australian or the Guardian?

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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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Happy Days?

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I wanted to put this up last week but a whole bunch of things kept getting in the way.

But now I’ve managed to clear some brain-space I thought I’d dive into the drafts pile and resuscitate this series of thoughts.

It’s a rare opportunity that we get to see Beckett in Melbourne.  Apparently it’s very hard to get bums on seats as soon as his name gets bandied about.

Which raises a series of interesting questions about canon formation and how, despite their cultural authority, certain productions repel people like the plague.

In a way it’s impossible to come at Beckett without sizing up the whole project of modernism. Modernism, whatever else it may be, is synonymous with high art and hence with what is difficult. Joyce, Woolf, Elliot, and Beckett may be as different from each other as chalk and cheese, but taken together they evoke a shared set of aesthetic concerns: a heightened literariness, a desire to experiment with form, and a conscious testing of representation’s limits.

Modernism is not as popular as it used to be.  Cultural tastes seem to have changed.  It’s not just a dumbing down (as is often claimed) of culture; there’s also a generational shift towards pastiche, parody and the postmodern.  My generation (X/Y) would rather watch The Simpsons than wade through The Waste Land. And who’s to say that there’s anything wrong with that?  The modernist fantasy of high culture as distinct from low culture no longer holds water in our in our relativistic, instantaneous 21st century.  There’s gems to be found on Youtube just as there are in musty libraries.  Deadwood anyone?

Which brings me back to Michael Kantor’s production of Happy Days currently playing at the Malthouse.

Happy Days is not as often staged as Beckett’s other long works Waiting for Godot and Endgame.  Perhaps because it is arguably more difficult to perform, watch, understand or enjoy.  I couldn’t help noticing on the night I attended (not that I’m a mind reader) a strong feeling that the audience wanted to like the play but didn’t know how to.

Which begs the question, how are we to enjoy something if we lack the necessary skills to read it, comprehend, interpret it?

There is an essential simplicity to Beckett’s stagecraft (a mound of earth, a crooked tree etc) which allows his plays function on both literal and symbolic levels.  It’s as Beckett cryptically remarked of Waiting for Godot: “If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God, and not Godot.”

And, for my money, this is where the Malthouse’ production let itself down.  Despite all the clever associations of the set design (the jagged shards of modernity, the apocalypse, the twin-towers etc) I felt that it undermined the performances of Winnie (Julie Forsythe) and Willie (Peter Caroll).  The set was too monumental, drew too much attention to itself, made the setting of the piece too much of a statement, foregrounded Winnie’s condition in such Helvetica twelve-point bold, that it ate into the sheer literalness that Happy Days requires.

And this ties in with my other complaint. In my opinion the Merlyn is too big a theatre to house Happy Days. Why not stage it in an intimate setting? Why not put Beckett in his namesake, the Beckett?  It would have been much more affecting, for example, had I been able to make out Winnie’s facial expressions.  As it was, I had to strain, and even then I couldn’t be sure if she was grimacing, smiling, or doing both at the same time.

Other than that, I think, as has generally been accepted, that this was a commanding performance by two of our most accomplished actors.  I utterly believed Julie Forsythe every step of the way. And Peter Caroll was hilarious though he only had about five lines.

I hope that we get to see more Beckett on the mainstage.  We may even, given a chance, learn to enjoy it.

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