Thursday, 30 January 2014

Postcard from Perth 9

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Perth Fringe World (1): My Father's World, Gym & Tonic, Run Girl Run



Playing Mothers and Fathers

I’ve been watching Generation War on SBS over the last few weeks. As an exercise in national guilt, the German TV series provides a telling counterpoint to Black Swan's Flood (c.f. the review of the play in my last post) – in this case deploying the popular film genre of the ensemble-cast coming-of-age drama (which is also a reference-point for Flood).

It’s also worth noting that the original German title of the series, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter, translates as ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’ – a much more accurate and revealing title for a show that deals in harrowing detail with ‘what daddy (and mummy) did in the war’. Unlike the English title, the German possessive pronoun makes the connection between past and present – specifically between the generation who went to war and those who came after it. For the writers and producers of the series, ‘their’ guilt is inescapably ‘ours’. Perhaps this is true for contemporary Germans generally – in comparison, for example, with their Australian counterparts in relation to crimes against Aboriginal people, past and present. The German title also introduces the notion of gender, and perhaps even sexual complicity. In a perversion of the 60s slogan, ‘our mothers and fathers’ made both love and war; and in doing so, they made us.

As it turns out, inter-generational and gender-related (even trans-gender-related) themes also underlie the Fringe shows I’m reviewing this week. For the reassurance of punters in search of a fun time, I should say at the outset that – unlike Gen War – they’re all ironic comedies. Perhaps this says something about my generation or the ones who’ve followed  – or at least those Gen Xs, Ys and Zs who are still making theatre. Or perhaps it says something about the culture here (as opposed to Germany). Who knows? And what comes after Generation Z anyhow?

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Perth Fringe World Summer Nights – curated by The Blue Room and hosting thirty-two local, interstate and international shows over the next three weeks in both the main and studio spaces and across the lane at the PICA Performance Space – officially opened on Tuesday night, following the season launch last Friday (Fringe World as a whole launched the night before). I was feeling too old and tired to go to either of the launches, but young and energetic enough to book tickets for about ten Fringe shows over the next few weeks (along with about five Perth Festival shows); so I’ll be keeping you posted on my Fringe and Festival adventures every Friday for the next month or so.

What does ‘fringe’ mean in the context of theatre (where the term is more likely to be used than with other art-forms like music, art, film or literature)? Off the top of my head, I’d say: alternative, experimental, avant-garde, edgy or ‘out-there’ as opposed to ‘mainstream’ theatre (in terms of form, content or both). In terms of resources, it’s typically small-scale, low-tech, low-budget and probably unfunded (although the venue or organization that hosts and supports it might be). It’s done out of passion, not for financial gain, to please a subscriber audience or satisfy funding requirements. In terms of historical origins and etymology, it’s traditionally staged in the context of a ‘fringe festival’, which itself traditionally occurs on the ‘fringe’ of a ‘main festival’ (Edinburgh, Adelaide) – although it may also stand alone, as is the case with Dublin Fringe and many fringe festivals on the Canadian circuit. In this context fringe shows often share a venue, seating configuration, lighting rig and other aspects of staging and design. As a ‘sector’ of the theatre ‘industry’, fringe is generally considered one step on from student theatre (meaning uni-student theatre, not drama-school theatre) and one step back (or perhaps sideways) from ‘independent’ theatre (which is likely to be better-resourced, and less likely to be as far ‘out there’); although the more recent term ‘independent’ (at least in the context of theatre) sometimes seems like little more than a polite way of saying, avoiding saying, or attempting to differentiate itself from, ‘fringe’.

However you choose to define it, the fringe is generally where you’ll find the most vibrant, cutting-edge theatre in town – during a festival or at any other time of year. It’s where new and emerging theatre makes a grassroots connection with the broader community. Inspiration and life come from the outside, while the centre is a place of stagnation and death. As the Labor Party has learnt to its cost, the middle of the road is the most dangerous place to drive.

The Perth Fringe World Festival has officially existed now for the last three years, ostensibly on the ‘fringe’ of the Perth International Festival. It’s managed by Artrage, a Perth alternative arts organization who also run their very own Spiegeltent, Rooftop Movies and alternative music venue The Bakery. In my experience, it’s a more ‘boutique’ experience for artists and audiences than Edinburgh, Adelaide or Melbourne. As most of the action is conveniently located immediately next to Perth Station, in existing or pop-up venues around Cultural Centre or in the surrounding vicinity of Northbridge, it goes off like no other fringe I’ve known – and certainly like no other festival or cultural event in Perth. The Christmas/New Year doldrums are definitively dispelled. It’s carnival time. Where better to celebrate fringe than a city at the edge of the world? 

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I went and saw three shows on Tuesday – two at the Blue Room and one at PICA – and both venues were humming. Along with the usual Blue Room regulars and industry suspects (loitering with intent and armed with Artist Passes) was a flood of Fringe punters – which in Perth pretty much means members of the general public, out for a good time in Northbridge on a balmy Tuesday summer night.

First up in the Blue Room main space was My Father’s World, a local show written and directed by Michael Collins and performed by Violette Ayad; followed in the same theatre by Gym & Tonic, written and performed by theatre and TV legend Roz Hammond and first aired at the Melbourne Comedy Festival last year; and finally at PICA Run Girl Run by Grit Theatre, fresh from the Melbourne Fringe Festival last October. MFW and G&T are both solo-shows that deal to a greater or lesser degree with parent-child relationships; G&T and RGR are both set in gyms (strangely enough) and both hail from Melbourne – in fact, there’s a veritable invasion of shows from Melbourne at Fringe World this year.  And last but not least, all three shows grapple – on different levels and in totally different ways – with questions of gender.

To begin with My Father’s World, a disclaimer is called for. I’ve been involved with this show as a mentor giving some dramaturgical and directorial assistance – previously when Michael performed it himself at Curtin University last year, and again recently when he became unavailable for Summer Nights and rewrote it for Violetta instead. However, it’s very much Michael’s (and now Violette’s) show, so I feel I can review it with at least some degree of impartiality.

Like The Lion King – but in a less elaborate or manipulative way – it’s basically a reworking of Hamlet. Sure, it’s a one-person show; there’s no Claudius/Scar; Dad/Hamlet Sr/Mufasa’s simply disappeared (presumed drowned – possibly a suicide); Hamlet/Simba’s a contemporary young Perth slacker; and – in this incarnation at least – she’s a girl: Jane. As such, it’s no revenge tragedy: more a tragi-comic coming-of-age monologue in the tradition of Catcher in the Rye – dealing with the latter’s now-standard themes of alienation, impotence (or at least powerlessness) and the search for an authentic identity.

In fact these themes – common to post-WW2 American fiction, theatre and cinema from the 50s right up to today (and preceded by the nineteenth century German Bildungsroman or ‘novel of development’ that found its prototype in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, which incidentally also deals with suicide) – have become part of the way we read Hamlet too. The theatrical, courtly and theological conventions of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge-drama are now less real to us than the formal, social and psychological tropes of contemporary novels, plays and films. Behind all this – as behind so much Western fiction, from The Odyssey to ET, not to mention the story of Jesus or the emblematic Wizard of Oz lurks the figure of the dead, impotent or absent father, and his impact on his children.

Compared with these illustrious predecessors – or as the Freudian revisionist critic Harold Bloom would say, ‘strong precursors’ (neither term being out of place in a discussion of plays that deal with progenitors, especially dead ones) – My Father’s World handles the same material with a light touch. Michael’s writing is circuitous, even whimsical, in its digressions; and Violette’s performance is truthful and touching without ever succumbing to earnestness or sentiment. She handles her throwaway gags with aplomb, and sports her baggy skeleton onesy and blue cardboard party-hat with style. The night I saw the show, the house was packed, and there were some big laughs.

Nevertheless for me the underlying pathos of the piece was heightened by the gender of performer and character, which gave another twist to the familiar story of coming to terms with loss, coming of age, and working out who you are, what you want to do and who you want to do it with (Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha springs to mind). On another level, gender makes no difference. Girls miss their dads too – and even identify with them – just as much (if not just the same) as boys do.

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Gym & Tonic was also packed to the rafters – this time with a more solidly middle-aged audience of Roz’s many admirers. They weren’t disappointed. The show is a dazzling display of her skills as a sketch-comedy writer-performer – familiar to anyone who’s seen her in multiple incarnations on the small screen (most recently in ‘Sean Micallef’s Mad As Hell’). However, it’s also much more than that.

Like My Father’s World, Gym & Tonic is also a one-woman show, but in a very different genre. I first saw this kind of self-penned, multiple-role, solo marathon spectacularly executed by Sarah Cathcart in The Serpent’s Tale back in the 80s; but the subtler writing and performance style of G&T inserts it into a more subcutaneous vein of satire. In fact it reminded me of the late, great, unsung Joyce Grenfell, with her quietly and desperately hilarious series of portrait-monologues by struggling middle-class English women oppressed by schoolboys big and small.

In this case, we meet a series of women attending a five-week fitness class. They include the pretentious owner of an exotic import-shop in Subiaco called Objet, whose son’s marriage breakdown has separated her from her grandchildren; a dutiful Indian housewife whose husband’s work has dragged her across the world to Australia and away from their children; an anxious carer who’s barely left the house since her invalid mother died; the guilt-ridden working-class mother of a morbidly obese daughter; and a mother-dominated young woman who’s serially rejected by the men she dates. In all these veritable case-studies of conflict or separation between mothers and children, there’s also an implied conflict or separation – if not a virtual gulf – between women and men. This time it’s not fathers but husbands who are implicitly dead or absent – literally, imaginatively or emotionally – while the women are left to pick up the pieces as best they can. ‘In love, it’s always the woman who feels the pain,’ as one of the characters says. A generalization, to be sure; but the point is well-taken.  Perhaps it’s simply more often women who feel, full stop – in patriarchal societies anyway. (More on this below, in connection with Run Girl Run.)

Again like My Father’s World – and indeed most Fringe shows – staging is simple: in this case, a gym-shelf of pigeon holes filled with wigs, costumes and basic props. Transitions are underscored by voice-overs of Roz in the entirely comic role of the fitness instructor (a role she also plays in real life), and illuminated by overhead projections of genre-paintings featuring mothers and children across centuries and cultures. These images (carefully avoiding any Madonnas) reinforced my sense that  – as the comparison with Joyce Grenfell above suggests – Gym & Tonic is neither superficial nor didactic. In its own gentle, even self-effacing way, it transcends the limits of sketch-comedy or satire. Beneath the changes of wig, costume, accent and physicality, the characters are underpinned and held in place by Roz’s fundamental stage-archetype of a Pierrot-like clown, brim-full of anxiety and love. Once again, there were plenty of laughs, but also a few tears.

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And so at last to Run Girl Run – easily the most ‘fringey’ of the three shows I saw on Tuesday, and with a more distinctively Melbournian edge of darkness. Three treadmills; three black underwear-clad performers (two girls, one boy). Slowly, clumsily, they don explorer socks and work-boots, climb on board and start the treadmills. They walk in silence for what seems like forever, then start chatting in a desultory, improvisatory, artfully non-dramatic style I also associate with Melbourne, in particular with Ranters Theatre and the work of Riamondo and Adriano Cortese. The chat is about food, TV shows, downloads, gadgets, widescreen TVs, new cars, and even an astonishing comparative excursus on shitting – interspersed with drinking tinnies of VB, smearing themselves with roll-on deodorant, pulling on board-shorts and wife-beater singlets, and gradually increasing the speed of the treadmills, until they are running full-pelt and yelling coach-like abuse at themselves.


It was around the time one of them began describing a TV show and was quietly corrected by the others for talking about how it made her feel (as opposed to restricting herself to the language of action and technology) that the penny finally dropped for me and I realized they were performing masculinity – or perhaps more precisely, practising what Brecht calls the device of Verfremdung or ‘making strange’ (often mistranslated as ‘alienation’) in order to foreground the performance that is masculinity (as opposed to identifying or conforming with its putative biological, hormonal or genital ‘nature’ as performers). One of the distinguishing features of this performance is of course the suppression of ‘feelings’ or ‘intuition’ – to borrow from Jung’s terminology of psychical functions – in the name of ‘thinking’ and ‘sensations’, both of which are considered more 'manly' than their 'girly' counterparts. In other words: if you're a boy, stop being a girl, and man up!

This Brechtian Verfremdungs-Effekt became glaringly obvious (and the level of camp turned up to 11) when they finished the first ‘pass’, stepped off the treadmills, changed into female underwear, stepped into high heels and then back on the treadmills to begin the whole process again – this time chatting about shoes, clothes, hair and cosmetics, interspersed with drinking small bottles of champagne, spraying themselves with perfume, shoving padding down their bras, pulling on tight dresses, putting on more and more layers of makeup, and finally wigs on top of wigs – until they were running like maniacs in heels, looking and sounding (convincingly) as if they were about to fall over and die. Brecht had been left behind: we were in the realm of Genet, or even Artaud – a pantomime theatre of cruelty.

Essentially Run Girl Run is a hilarious, appalling burlesque act. I laughed, I gasped, I felt physically ill and sympathetically terrified for their health and safety. The use of consumer-props and pounding music-tracks to punctuate action and dialogue (or its absence) at crucial moments only added to the horror. This was not just about the performance of gender but its dance of death in the age of consumerism. It’s how I sometimes feel about the world. Sometimes I think it is the world. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be; that’s the point of what Brecht called his ‘epic theatre’. Or perhaps there’s no escape: Genet’s endless labyrinth of prisons and brothels, real or imagined; Artaud’s interminable incarcerations in psychiatric hospitals and asylums. 

Or perhaps I've just been living in Perth too long. 

Thank God for Fringe.

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My Father’s World is at 6.30pm and Gym & Tonic at 8pm at The Blue Room; Run Girl Run is at 9.30pm at PICA. All three shows finish this Saturday 1 Feb.



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