Category Archives: Writing

New Writing, New Reading

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Over the last six months a bunch of us have been developing new work as part of a development project kick-started by MTC’s Associate Director Aidan Fennessy.

We’re now at the stage where we are going to be showing our work in a series of public readings at the Lawler Studio.

The pieces are eclectic, original, and unlike anything you will have seen on Melbourne stages this year.  They range from evocative to Pinteresque, magical realist to politically incisive, comedic and absurd to darkly horrific.  There should be, without doubt, something in there for the whole family.

The three readings (all @ 7pm) are:

  • Wed 11 November is Elise Hearst & Sam Strong’s The Sea Project
  • Thu 12 November is Amelia Roper & Naomi Edwards’ Hong Kong Dinosaur
  • Fri 13 November is Declan Greene & myself with Pretty Baby.

Come along, have a glass of wine with us, and tell us what you think of the work.  We’d really love to hear it.

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The Word

words

I was at a fantastic play reading last night: Nicki Bloom’s Tender at the Lawler Studio.

Apparently the play has already done the rounds in Sydney and elsewhere.  But we hadn’t seen it in Melbourne yet.  And, seriously, what a talent.  So young too: she wrote Tender at the tender age of 22, I believe.

Anyway, I was chatting with a mate afterwards about theatre and the like, and it got me thinking.

The essential gist of the conversation went like this:

He said he thinks design is the most important factor in theatre today.  I disagreed and said it is (and always has been) the word. Which, to me, seems to sum up a whole raft of debates that have been going on in theatre (post-theatre, devised theatre etc) for quite some time.

Whether we liked it or not, we both agreed that our present culture is more image than text literate.  For better or worse, there is no going back.  Logos has had its day.

However – and this is where it gets tricky – just because we’re better trained to read images now than text, does that mean that image can (or should) replace the word?

Can image ever be the driving force (or structuring principle) in the theatre?   I think not.  I think – and I am aware this is going to make me sound incredibly conservative and more like a 90 than a 27 year old – that theatre, by definition, is about drama. And drama, in turn, is based on the word.

I can already hear people shouting at their computer screens as they read this.  Surely, they are yelling, theatre has always been a combination of word and image?

Which is true, theatre does include image, movement, and so on.  But a case can be made that these things are non-essential.  By which I mean, theatre can exist without such them.  But theatre cannot exist without drama.  A silent play, for example, must still be dramatic.  (I’m thinking of Beckett’s Act Without Words I & II).  Because no matter how cut-up, fragmented, devised, run backwards, undermined, rough, holy, poor, decaffeinated or otherwise, the audience will still interpret and form the raw material into a narrative pattern, in other words, into a drama.

That’s what I mean by drama; it’s not spoken word, or writing on a page, but the very thing that holds it all together.  It’s a structuring principle that we bring into the theatre with us.  No matter how clever the artist, he or she cannot disarm the audience of this faculty.

Now, I’m not saying we should all immediately stop what we are doing and start making neat, clean, old fashioned drama.  On the contrary, a lot of the best of what I see is pushing at the boundaries of drama, is aware and conscious of these constraints, works within them, subverts them, twists them, turns them upside down, empties them out and puts them back again.  But I do see a lot of shows that seemingly fail to notice the very tradition they are working within, the structure they are standing on, and so are often incredibly yawn-worthy; not because they lack edginess or a great design, or slickness, or prettiness, but because they haven’t yet woken up, are still unconscious.  In other words, it’s not yet theatre.

For me, theatre is closer to poetry than anything else.  It can take on, or borrow from, other forms. But it remains, in essence, an activity that a people do with their ears and mouths.

Design will never replace the word.  A great many people may try (and currently are) but the word will remain central.  Because, to remove the word would mean, by definition, that theatre is no longer theatre.

I welcome interlocutors.

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Up the Savage River

louis-armstrong

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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Happy Days?

happy_days_rev

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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Mieville in Melbourne

TheScar(1stEd)

I’m not as big on SF as I used to be.

I used to be, back when it was called science fiction, before the genre was rebranded speculative fiction.

Every now and then I like to pick up a novel and re-ignite those boyhood neural circuits that were first set on fire by Tolkien, Eddings, Feist, Brooks, then Asimov, Clarke, Gibson, Le Guin, and Dick.  The glory days pretty much ended with PKD (Phillip K Dick) because that’s when I got a bit older and turned my attentions elsewhere.

The last thing I read in SF that opened my eyes was Iain M. Banks and his sprawling space operas the best of which I thought was The Algebraist.

But there’s an even better writer I’ve recently discovered (I know, I know, I’m awfuly behind) and he happens to be making an appearance in Melbourne in the near future.

He is, of course, China Mieville, and he’s appearing at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival to talk about his awesome, alternate realities as portrayed in The Scar and Perdido Street Station and most recently The City & the City.

Appart from being a SF novelist, China is also an out and out Marxist, having written Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. He also teaches at the London School of Economics (where he completed his Ph D) in international relations and Marxism.

If this combination of elements causes you extreme excitement (as it does for me) then check out his upcoming lecture:

5.30 Thursday 20th August @ Melbourne Uni Law School.  I’ll be there for sure.

Maybe when I get some time I’ll revisit my early SF writing too.

I once wrote a cyberpunk story about a gladiator owned by the Neo-Tokyo yakuza.  My crazy brain decided that the best twist would be if he had a bomb inside him (not one he knew about) so that the yakuza could use him as a betting pawn.

They blew him up in the middle of the biggest bout in history and made, quite literally, a killing.

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The Man from Mukinupin

Muk Large 7

I almost missed this show.

So many people independently told me it wasn’t worth a crumpet that I actually believed them.  Which just goes to show, when the mass of opinion runs against a piece of theatre, it usually pays to investigate further.

As it turned out it was only because of the determined campaigning of a friend that I found myself sitting in the half-empty Sumner theatre for the closing matinee.

How wrong I was to doubt.  This was a truly stunning production and, despite its obvious complexity, more rewarding than anything I have seen this year.

I realise that I am far, far too late to contribute to the critical discussion that has been unfolding online.  So much has already been said over at Theatre Notes that it hardly seems worth adding a trickle to the flood.  Nevertheless I want to post a few comments, if I may, mainly for my own clarity of thinking

The fact that The Man from Mukinupin has received such a bipolar reaction from audiences warrants investigation.  Why have so many people to walked out on it during interval?  Why have so many people dismissed it so spitefully (“worst show I have ever seen”) and argued so vehemently against it?

Sure, it is a shaggy beast, dramaturgically jagged and by contemporary standards overladen.  But so is Shakespeare.  And no one in their right mind would walk out of a performance of Hamlet.  Audiences will suffer any degree of butchery or boredom for the sake of what they think is canonical.

And yet Shakespeare was, in every way, Hewett’s dramatic blueprint.  As Peter Brook says:

It is through Shakespeare’s unreconciled opposition of Rough and Holy, through an atonal screech of absolutely unsympathetic keys that we get the disturbing and unforgettable impression of his plays.  It is because the contradictions are so strong that they burn on us so deeply.

This same contrapuntal energy drives The Man from Mukinupin.  It is her conscious intermingling of opposites, of high and low culture, that makes Hewett’s such a unique voice. Various theatrical styles – from vaudeville and country town players, to musical and dance, to high poetics and Henry Lawson bush ballads, to Coleridge, Shakespeare, Milton and other literary giants – vie openly for our attention.  We have to be on our toes lest it all seem a jumbled mess.  But that is only to say that it’s not easy.  Just because something is complex or difficult does not make it bad theatre.  Since when did theatre become synonymous with digestible?  Why should a work not hold out against the audience; again, does anyone accuse Shakespeare of being too hard and therefore no good?

Leading on from this, it seems a great many people have been confused by Brechtian aspects in the production.

Brechtian strategies of representation are usually explained by way of alienation.  In this regard, it would seem, the production may have been too sucessful.  (Which begs the question, how does one alienate an audience that reads irony as poor production values?)  There is, for example, Enoch’s use of whiteface (the inverse of traditional theatrical blackface) which draws ironic attention to itself and foregrounds the representation of race within the theatrical world as inherently cross-racial.

Or there is the brilliant use of the washing-line (the scrim) which forces a 2-dimensionality upon the playing space and behind which (as shadows) and infront of which (as stereotypes) the actors present deliberately flat characters.  This makes for a wonderful contrast when the production switches between day and night (light and dark sides of the town) and the shadows on the washing-line (Plato’s cave wall) become a whole new set of characters: repressed ghosts, colonial outcasts, drunkards, flashers, and touch of the tar.  Again, it adds to the confusion, but I felt it was an inspired choice to have the same actors (Craig Annis & Suzannah Bayes-Morton) playing Jack/Harry and Polly/Lilly as it made clear that their characters were simply negative images or yin-yang opposites of the same coin.

And none of it was out of step with Hewett’s text.  It’s all there on the page.  What’s not is the shimmering clarity of Enoch’s vision, which for me has done for The Man from Mukinupin what Benedict Andrews did for The Season at Sarsaparilla.

There were moments of geniune power and pathos which combined with instances of side-splitting humour: the ridiculously overblown perfomance of Othello’s smothering of Desdemona had me almost wetting my pants with laughter (especially since I was AD on Bell Shakespeare’s recent production of Othello and had watched that scene play out an hundred times in the rehearsal room).

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This truly was a triumphant production which raised kept raising the bar in terms of sheer, uncompromising layering of depth and detail.

The Man from Mukinupin deserved to pack out its final weeks.  And yet, while this diamond in the rough has gone largely unnoticed (at least in terms of ticket sales) every man, woman and legless dog has gone barking mad over August: Osage County (which in my opinion was largely forgettable).

It raises, I think, some important questions about Melbourne’s cultural mileiu and what possesses cultural capital here.  Is it that we are no longer willing to give time and space to the poetic or baroque?  Or is it that we cannot appreciate stories that critique our national identity?

The debate around the revival of Wake in Fright is an interesting case in point.  As Kate Jennings argues in the Monthly:

Australians are intensely uncomfortable with being served themselves straight up, neat, on the rocks. When Wake In Fright was released, Colin Bennett in the Age feared for its box-office fate for that very reason: “Is it an Australian trait, a blind spot in our character, to refuse to see ourselves as others see us unless it be blatantly satirical?”

We spend so much time scratching around in the chookyard of Australian theatre looking for the next great play or film.  Perhaps we ought to stop digging up worms and embrace our unruly, uncompromising writers of yesteryear.

Patrick White has been at last accepted onto the stage.  It seems we are not yet ready for Dorothy Hewet.

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