Monday, 23 December 2013

Postcard from Perth 6

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

2013 Postcard Awards

I have my doubts about ‘best of’ lists, awards, competitions or prizes. I don’t really know what it means to ‘win’ – or how comparatives like ‘better’ or ‘best’ apply – in theatre or the arts. In the field of sport, for example, one can measure speed or score points in order to make determinate judgments; in the dialectic of art – unlike sport, or science – quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality (pace Hegel, or the tailor in the well-worn Jewish joke). Rather, the individual work or performance should be judged on its own terms and according to its own 'rules', so to speak. This is one of the consequences of the concept of autonomy referred to in my Postcard last week on independent theatre.

I know awards have a function in terms of professional recognition and promotion; and on occasions I’ve even been honoured to receive or be nominated for them; but I’m not sure about their validity or long-term value. The experience on the night is gratifying for some, but awkward, embarrassing or humiliating for others (winning in place of someone else, being nominated but not winning, or not being nominated at all – it's hard to say which is worse). In any case, there’s something deeply vain (in both senses) and even fundamentally narcissistic about the experience.

It’s a bit like reading your own reviews: an essentially futile exercise that can’t really tell you anything, except how you feel about someone else’s opinion of your work – which you were probably better off not knowing in the first place. To paraphrase Lacan: you can never see yourself as you want to be seen from the place where you want someone else to see you. Caveat emptor, by the way, to any Perth theatre industry readers of this blog.

Nevertheless, if I close my eyes, I can imagine an award-ceremony where there’d be no pre-established award-categories or even preliminary lists of nominees; instead, surprise-awards would be granted for the occasion, using categories created for and inspired by the individuals and works themselves. To use Kant’s distinction in the Critique of Judgment, such awards would be acts of ‘reflective’ rather than ‘determinate’ judgment, because rather than applying pre-existing criteria, the judges would have to use their imagination to ‘invent’ new ones. In my mind, this would be a lot more fun for everyone involved – judges, recipients and audience – and perhaps dispense more justice, too. In fact, I wonder if such an approach couldn’t also be applied to arts funding assessment criteria, instead of the Procrustean practice of ‘scoring’ applications; but that’s another story, for another Postcard.

So, as my final Postcard for the year – and in the spirit of Christmas – I offer my own ‘reflective’ list of awards, based on the theatre I’ve seen in Perth in 2013. Needless to say, the list isn’t exhaustive in terms of what I saw – or even liked – let alone in terms of what was on. I’m calling them my Postcard from Perth 2013 Issue Stamps, but you can call them ‘Postcard Awards’ or ‘Posties’ for short, or whatever else you prefer for the purposes of your CV. I’m giving them in no particular order, other than chronological.


To kick off the year, Perth International Festival and FringeWorld in February provided me with at least three memorable experiences, in the theatre and out of it. In fact FringeWorld itself gets my 2013 Festival Award for being just that: a genuine festival – that is to say, a seasonal feast of events that capitalized on Perth’s unique small-town summer vibe and transformed the city in and around the Cultural Centre, as people of all ages and backgrounds participated in a manageable array of shows and events, taking place outdoors and indoors, in pop-up and permanent venues, mostly in the immediate neighbourhood of Perth Train Station. I’ve had colleagues, friends and family visiting Perth during Fringe and Festival time over the last couple of years, and I’m proud to share with them what is now my favourite Fringe: still small but perfectly formed, in comparison with the behemoths of Adelaide and Edinburgh (in which small local shows are often lost while commercial winners take all).

Local emerging writer/director/actor Will O’Mahony’s play The Improved for emerging company The Skeletal System at The Blue Room (where it was part of their Summer Nights Season) gets my 2013 Breakout Debut Production Award. He’s since also written, directed and performed in Great White, which was also at The Blue Room in June and will be restaged at PICA for Summer Nights this coming February. Will is an engagingly truthful actor, and gets similar and consistent performances from his casts; his staging is spartan but elegant, without being showy or laden with gimmicks; but most impressive of all is the writing, which combines easy-flowing naturalistic dialogue with surreal narrative tropes and dramatic conventions. Will’s plays are parables, but they yield no easy moral, message or meaning. They make me think of the stories of Kafka, the novels of Murakami or the screenplays of Charlie Kaufmann; but they’re quintessentially theatrical.

Across the road at PICA as part of Summer Nights was Birdboy, devised and performed by Wet Weather Ensemble, following a development at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Centre in New York. Wet Weather are an ambitious multi-disciplinary group making a dreamlike, hand-held form of devised work that owes a lot to the aesthetics of free play which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts as a distinctive feature of Perth independent theatre-making. Deliberately messy in style and realization, Birdboy nevertheless gets the 2013 Two Roberts (Wilson/Lepage) Award for Multi-Disciplinary Practice, comprising the Wilson Award for Sheer Beauty and the Lepage Award for Emotional Resonance.

Also in the Fringe but outside the aegis of Summer Nights or the Cultural Centre venues was The Wives of Hemingway, directed and co-devised by Zoe Pepper for her company Side Pony and staged under the dilapidated palms at North Perth Bowls Club. Featuring a car-chassis, giant Tiki puppets and a dazzling and courageous cast of three (Tim Watts, Adrienne Daff and Josh Price) freely exchanging characters, wigs, genders and sexualities, Wives gets the 2013 Postcard Stamp for Transgressive Clowning and Literary-Historical Pantomime. Zoe’s work with Side Pony and her collaborators has a playful ‘let’s-dress up-and-pretend’ aesthetic (their previous major work The Pride also had three performers – again two male and one female, Adrienne Daff – dressed in lion-suits) which is hilariously entertaining but frames a darker analysis of the politics of role-play that reminds me of Carol Churchill (and Genet before her).

In the International Festival, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by the strategically named National Theatre of Scotland stood out for me. This was an immersive performance designed to be staged in a pub; I saw it at Little Creatures Loft; there were also performances at The Melbourne Hotel. Written in rhyming couplets and featuring an ensemble cast of actor-musicians playing multiple roles, it began as an earthy satire on contemporary academic fashions (set at a conference on folk literature in a Scottish Border village) before transforming into a thrilling mythic descent into hell. Prudencia gets the 2013 Postie for Pub Theatre with a Nightmare Twist.

After that it was a long time between drinks. That’s partly because I spent much of the year in shows myself rather than going to see them. Scrolling through my iCalendar the next entry that jumps out is Fat Pig at The Blue Room in May–June. Produced by longstanding local independent company Red Ryder, this well-crafted if rather unexceptional Neil LaBute play was skilfully directed by Emily MacLean and featured a dynamic modular design by Fiona Bruce, artful lighting and scoring by Joe Lui and pitch-perfect performances by Alisa Osyka, Brendan Ewing, Will O’Mahony and Georgia King. Red Ryder consistently deliver a brand of independent theatre I associate with The Old Fitz or The Darlinghurst in Sydney: low-budget but highly professional productions of contemporary plays that don’t necessarily break new ground in terms of form or content but feature a team of crack local artists at the top of their game. A show delivered with more finesse would be hard to find on the main stages. Fat Pig gets the 2013 Postcard Stamp for Perfectly Realized Production.

My next award somewhat controversially goes to Alienation, a Perth Theatre Company co-production with Penrith-based Q Theatre Company, in June–July at The Studio Underground – and specifically to two remarkable performances by Luke Hewitt and Natalie Holmwood. This show was much criticized, and indeed publicly disowned by the playwright – in a printed slip which was handed out by front-of-house staff to audience members as they descended the stairs to the theatre, stating that the production didn’t reflect the author’s intentions. I mean, please. Without further entering into or taking sides in this futile controversy (which lead to the cancellation of the Q Theatre season) I simply wish to record my enduring memory of two actors, characters and stories fearlessly laying it on the line, risking our laughter and finally touching us deeply. As a production and a play Alienation may have been undramatic, overlong and lacking in distance from its subject matter or clarity of focus and tone – all risks typical of group-devised, documentary or verbatim theatre (exacerbated in this case by an evident creative mismatch in the process of its making). Nevertheless it attempted something remarkable, and achieved it in the case of at least two performances. Luke and Natalie share the 2013 Postcard Performer’s Award for Onstage Integrity and Courage Under Fire.

Next on the list is writer/director/devisor Ian Sinclair’s Little Mermaid in August–September at The Blue Room. Ian is a founding member of Wet Weather Ensemble, and incidentally also gets the Gloria Swanson Award for Cross-Dressage in Birdboy. In contrast he directed but restrained himself from appearing in The Little Mermaid under the aegis of Houston Sinclair Productions. This enchanting show was co-devised and performed by amphibious actor/dancer Jacinta Larcombe and more earth-bound actor/archetypes Ben Gill and Georgia King. Ian’s work is camp, dreamy, post-Pop, Gen Y theatre. Mermaid gets the 2013 Postie for Poignant Use of Soap-Bubbles and the Leonardo di Caprio Award for Breaking Up with a Bedroom Wall Poster of Leonardo di Caprio.

September also saw a remount of It’s Dark Outside at The Studio Underground, created and performed by Weeping Spoon artists Tim Watts and Arielle Gray with Chris Isaacs, and commissioned by Perth Theatre Company. I missed this show the first time around in 2012, so was thrilled to catch it before it headed off on tour again. Tim and Arielle’s previous hit Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer has toured the world since its debut at The Blue Room back in 2009; Chris is also a playwright whose new work Flood is being produced by Black Swan for Fringe World in February. Following in the footsteps of Alvin, Dark Outside was a low-fi spectacular mix of puppetry, object-theatre and digital animation (Black Light Theatre of Prague meets Pixar, so to speak) and also featured an unforgettable mask performance by Arielle. It gets the 2013 Postcard Stamp for the Use of Mask and Animation (Live and Digital) in the Process of Coming to Terms with Loss.

Weeping Spoon’s most recent show Bruce, devised and performed by Tim with fellow Spoon Wyatt Nixon-Lloyd, also had its debut season at The Blue Room this November–December (and was reviewed in an earlier post). Bruce gets the 2013 Postie for Multiple Animation of a Single Item of Kitchenware as well as the M. Night Shyamalan Plot Twist Award.

Writer/director/lighting/sound designer/composer Joe Lui’s The Tribe for his company Renegade Productions was staged in two parts at The Blue Room in October, with Part One upstairs in the Main Space and Part Two downstairs in the Kaos Room. Devised and featuring Renegade stalwarts Paul Grabovac, Mikala Westall and Ella Hetherington, and fastidiously designed by India Mehta, The Tribe was the latest instalment (or instalments, if you count both parts as separate shows) in Renegade’s steady output of post-dramatic, post-humanist political theatre. The Tribe gets the 2013 Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud Awards. There’s no one else making theatre like Joe (or Renegade) in Perth or elsewhere.

Around the same time in October, the 2013 Proximity Festival at PICA featured 12 artists performing 12 fifteen-minute works in 12 rooms 12 times a night to one audience member at a time. This was the performance event of the year for me personally, but is hard to judge in my capacity as a participant artist if not a participant audience-member (although the boundary between the two was inevitably somewhat blurred). Nevertheless, the intrepid Proximity curatorial team (producer Sarah Rowbottam, co-curator James Berlyn and provocateur Kelli McClusky) collectively get the 2013 Star Trek Award for Enterprise in Boldly Going Where No Woman Or Man Has Gone Before – arguably shared with audience-members and artists alike, in keeping with the festival’s participatory nature.

I’ve already reviewed James Berlyn’s Crash Course and Ahilan Ratnamohan’s SDS1 – both at PICA in November – in previous Postcards. Crash Course gets the 2013 Award for Immersive/Participatory Theatre; SDS1 the 2013 Award for Relevance in (and of) Performance.

Last but not least, The Blue Room Theatre gets the 2013 Productivity and Diversity Awards, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award for Venue (and Bar) at the Edge of the Universe.


The observant reader will notice a pronounced lean in this small tower of awards, in favour of independent artists, works, companies and venues. Whether this simply reflects my own subjective tastes and tendencies or the objective state of things, I couldn’t possibly comment. In fact, the same disclaimer applies to all these Postcards from Perth. Hopefully, though, there’s a discernible connection between what I like, see, think or do, and what’s actually the case. That’s the point of awards after all, or any other form of reflection. 

I’ll be posting the next one in a fortnight’s time on 7th January. Merry Christmas and Happy 2014.

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