Tag Archives: Writing

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.

WEB-SAVAGE-LARGE-01(1)

A Happy Family Portait

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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).

Muk Large 4

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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The Road (Not) Taken

It wasn’t that long ago that I blew open the literary vault of my brain with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Not for years had I picked up a book which from the outset (“See the child.”) had me holding on to the arms of my chair for fear that my head would explode with the sheer power of the language.  It stopped me in my tracks and forced me to rethink everything I knew about ‘the novel’.  It was like a nightmare weighing on my brain, after which my mind was left spent and parched, pulverised by McCarthy’s relentless historical phantasmagoria.

I didn’t think I’d pick up another one of his books for quite some time.  I thought I’d thumbed enough violence and horror.  I thought I had him all figured out.

But recently I found myself in a bookshop holding a copy The Road and I flipped it open and started to read:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.  His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.  He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.

I devoured the next 307 pages in a sustained frenzy.  A total of three sittings.

I don’t think it is hard to see that The Road is one of the most significant novels to emerge since the turn of the millennium.  It poses some incredibly important questions, not the least of which is, what does it mean to be human in a world devoid of humanity.

I would highly recommend it to anyone concerned about the state of our world.  It gives fresh hope that there is meaning in words, power in language, and purpose in art.

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Kaufman on Kaufman (on Kaufman)

synecdoche_new_york

For those of you living under a tortoise shell or in a fallout bunker, Charlie Kaufman has a new movie out which he has written and directed.

Synecdoche, New York is, in short, brilliant.

If you haven’t yet seen it, step away from your computer and go check it out.  It’s far better than Adaptation, a sight better than Being John Malkovich, and in my humble opinion equally as good (if not better than) the much loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

If you happen to work in theatre – like I do – then it is compulsory viewing.

And check out this interview with Kaufman: he has some very interesting things to say about writing for stage and screen.

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