Tag Archives: Theatre Reviews

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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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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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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The Man from Mukinupin

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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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