Thursday, 27 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 14

Postcard from Brisbane: Part Two

APAM Diary (Continued)

Day 2: Wednesday 20/2

I arrive at the Hub the next morning and re-enter the sweltering tent to witness the first round of pitching. Robyn Archer’s hosting these sessions over the next few days, and thanks to her gentle but firm intervention the cabaret seating and tables have been quietly scrapped and the audience chairs arranged in rows facing the stage. I breathe a sigh of relief and settle down in the front row next to a relaxed observer delegate who works for an arts funding organization and tells me how much he loves his job. The heat and humidity are still oppressive but more fans have been installed and at least there’s now some visual focus as the show finally gets under way.

I won’t describe the individual pitches, but they’re good – very good. They’re only fifteen minutes each, the artists are engaging and show tantalizing videos, and the observer delegate and I agree we’d fund/buy/present them all. Afterwards I go outside for a takeaway iced coffee from a stall, and then saunter down to catch the free delegate bus that will take me downtown to the Judith Wright Centre, where there’s a showcase at noon. This is a twenty-five minute excerpt from a movement-theatre piece called Whelping Box by Branch Nebula, Matt Prest and Clare Britton.

At the theatre I run into my friend from Minneapolis and another dancer from the American delegation, and we decide to be rebels and sit in the single row of seats onstage in the round, rather than in the auditorium with all the squares where we’ve been directed by the ushers. The show is great: two guys squaring off against each other, pushing and dragging each other around, blindfolding and tying each other up, and generally horsing around in a vaguely sadomasochistic way, before getting their kit off, climbing up on the rostra behind us and parading around us like dogs, balls dangling, arse-sniffing, leg-cocking and looking for trouble. Then they re-enter the arena, start taping themselves up and tethering themselves together with clear plastic adhesive, and the gladiatorial fun and games begin.  Finally they put on ludicrous headgear, grab sceptres and bits of wafer and begin enacting some kind of insane sacrilegious rite. The whole thing is lit by a huge single yellow lamp hanging low from the ceiling. I’m exhilarated. I want to see the whole show.

I decide to hang around at the Judith Wright and see another showcase. This is The Walking Neighbourhood, a promenade piece in which children aged up to about twelve take you on a local walking tour with a theme of their choice. It’s a fantastic project by a Contact Inc, a group of interdisciplinary artists who collaborate with kids in order to empower and encourage them to reclaim the streets and their sense of agency. There’s documentation on the walls of the work taking place in South East Asian slums and Aboriginal communities. The neighbourhood of New Farm isn’t quite as exotic, but has its own grungy challenges.

My first tour is ‘The Freedom Tour’: an earnest and energetic tween takes me and two others around the block to a cramped, gloomy space beneath a stairwell. Here she tells us how she liberates battery-farmed chickens and keeps them as pets, before her obliging middle-aged minder feeds us each a free-range hard-boiled egg from a basket. Finally our tour guide gives us some coloured chalk to tag the wall with whatever we’re feeling. I write ‘Guilty’.

For my second tour, ‘The Express Yourself’ tour, I’m on my own with another, even more overexcited tween (and a minder who doesn’t look much older than her charge) who takes me somewhere down a sidestreet that seems pretty random, puts a One Direction CD on her ghetto blaster and shows me some dance moves. I discover I’m quite good at ‘The Kayak’, which is all about upper body strength, but not as good as either of my companions when it comes to ‘The Sprinkler’.

By now I’m feeling inspired. I head back on the free bus to The Powerhouse, chatting excitedly with other delegates. We’re like grey nomads on an AAT tour heading off on an outback safari. I haven’t had so much fun since I can’t remember when.

Back at the Powerhouse I’m just in time to catch Forklift, a dance/physical theatre/circus piece by a group called Kage involving some scantily clad young women and, you guessed it, a forklift. The sun is blazing down on them and us in the Powerhouse Plaza, and I sidle into a patch of shade and feel my spirits begin to settle. I find myself standing next to a black-clad hybrid sound/performance artist from Melbourne and we compare notes on the politics of the piece, and archly observe how context determines content. As circus, it could almost be interesting; as contemporary dance, it wouldn’t pass muster; as for live art…we shake our heads and go our separate ways. I catch sight of Minneapolis in the crowd; she winces at me in agony. The girls are draped on the forklift now. I pity them, in the pitiless heat, in front of this pitiless crowd.

Back inside the Hub, it’s time for more pitches. One at least is brilliant, but they’re all interdisciplinary/hybrid/conceptual/large-scale/outdoor/site-specific, and/or involve interactive technology, and I begin to wonder how I’m going to fare tomorrow, pitching what looks like being the only small-scale theatre show involving an actor who plays a character in a story. I mention this to Minneapolis, who reckons it’ll work in my favour. We agree that iPads and iPods are the Achilles Heel of contemporary performance, but I can’t quite dispel the feeling that I’m swimming against the post-dramatic tide.

I head off for my one and only scheduled meeting with a regional festival director. He’s been newly appointed and proceeds to tell me how he’s completely restructuring the festival in question. It’s a little disconcerting, as it was the only festival I’d thought my show might have had a place in. Now I’m not at all sure how or even if I fit into his ambitious plans. We part amicably though, and promise to keep in touch. I wonder if I just ‘started a conversation’.

On my way out of The Hub again, I bump into a fellow artist-delegate, who’s doing multiple showcases at the Judith Wright. She’s come to have a drink at The Hub with a mutual friend, who’s doing the lighting for her showcase, and who only has a blue Artist Pass. To our embarrassed astonishment, the APAM ushers won’t let her in. We’re gobsmacked. They both head off to have a drink at the Powerhouse, which is open to the public. I’m sorely tempted, and there’s a show I want to see there tonight; but I feel I should go back to my digs and do some preparation for my pitch tomorrow morning. I’ve got a video and a nifty prop (a prototype set design in a suitcase actually), but I haven’t actually decided – let alone written – what I’m going to say.

I head back to the backpackers, grab my laptop, find a local bistro, order a light beer and a steak, and rattle off my spiel. In an hour, I’m back at the Powerhouse Theatre, watching Anthony Hamilton’s stunning full-length dance work Black Project 1. It’s everything I’ve been craving since I got here: rigorous, intelligent, distilled, wordless yet devastatingly eloquent of the world we live in, and the catastrophe we’re living through. Technology isn’t merely utilized or even incorporated so much as inscribed into the dancers’ bodies and movements, as they alternately merge with the set and tear it apart before finally vanishing. Living in Perth, I haven’t seen Anthony’s work for ten years; we shared transport from Brisbane Airport the other night, exchanged friendly greetings, and I recalled that much more light-hearted earlier show. ‘Oh, this one’s a bit different,’ he said. Nothing could have prepared me.

Once again, I compare notes with Minneapolis. Yep, the real thing at last, we agree. We climb up onstage as the audience disperses and inspect the remains of the set, like a crime scene. I want to linger and talk to Anthony, but he’ll be a while, scrubbing off the black stuff he was covered in from head to toe, skin, face, clothes and all. I need to go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.

I walk back through the balmy Brisbane night and run through my pitch in my head. I’m glad I came back and saw Anthony’s piece. I feel more confident now about my own. Even though they’re worlds apart in terms of form, content or sheer level of craft, I’ve been reminded that theatre can be real.


Postcard from Perth/Brisbane: APAM Diary continues next week.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 13

Postcard from Brisbane: APAM Diary (Part One)

I’ve just spent the past five days at the biennial Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM), which this year shifted ground from its former home at the Adelaide Festival Centre (where it traditionally coincided with the Adelaide Fringe) to the Brisbane Powerhouse (where it now coincides with the World Theatre Festival – cynically abbreviated by some to ‘the WTF Festival’). The Powerhouse has additionally won the tender to host the next three events in 2014, 2016 and 2018.


For those who don’t know, APAM was set up by the Australia Council in 1994 to increase national and international touring opportunities for Australian performing artists. It’s now the biggest performing arts event in the Asia-Pacific region, attracting over 600 delegates from 32 countries, and 52 Australian and New Zealand companies and artists showcasing or pitching work.

Basically there are two classes of people at APAM: buyers and sellers. The buyers are known as ‘presenters’ (basically venues and festivals); ‘sellers’ are called ‘producers’ (which in this context includes companies and artists) and have to make a competitive submission to APAM for their show to be included in the program. This can take the form of a 15-minute pitch (for a show currently in development), a 25-minute excerpt (from an existing show) or a full-length showcase performance. Otherwise you can pay to attend as a delegate (for a hefty fee) on a first-come-first-served basis until allocations are exhausted.

There are also delegates who stand (to a greater or lesser degree) aloof from the imperatives of ‘the market’: let’s call them interested observers (for example, representatives of funding bodies or other arts organisations). I envied these guys. As one them observed to me on the first day of the pitch sessions: ‘I love my job.’

Successful applicants get one complimentary ‘delegate pass’ per show, which entitles them to attend all events and venues at APAM across the five days, including pitches, showcases, marketing booths, discussion forums, celebrations, dinners, drinks, bar and entertainment facilities, etc. In the case of producers, this free pass is meant to go to someone ‘representing’ the show throughout the five days (unless you’re an artist-producer ‘representing’ yourself, as I was).

Otherwise, artists and stage crew receive ‘artist passes’, which allow them limited access to the relevant venues for their respective activities (basically, rehearsals and presentations) on the days of those activities alone. ‘Delegates’ are issued on arrival with a red pass on a lanyard with their name and position in their respective organisation; ‘artists’ receive a blue pass. Access to venues and events is shepherded accordingly by APAM volunteers and security staff. It's a classic case of what Foucault called 'pastoral power'.

More on these red and blue passes anon.

Underlying the barrier between 'delegates' and 'artists' (which some mavericks like me managed to breach) – and the further division within the class of delegates between presenters and producers – is another, less clearly enforced or articulated distinction between the official market-aspect of the event (i.e. the business of actually buying and selling shows) and the more unofficial, indirect and indefinable process of ‘networking’ (which might or might not include what is euphemistically referred to as ‘building relationships’ or ‘starting conversations’). This somewhat more fluid process implicitly overflows the confines of any particular work, transaction, job description or indeed APAM itself in any given year.

Indeed, as I discovered, networking is arguably its principle social function as an ongoing event or evolving organism composed of interacting individuals and the network of relationships between them. As such, being there sometimes felt like attending an interminable five-day party – or entering a strange and exclusive club – and finding (or at least seeking) one’s way and place within it.

For the record: I was attending in a curiously hybrid capacity as an artist-delegate, having successfully applied to pitch a show and representing myself. I was also on my own, having no supporting artists, crew or management: so in effect a one-man-band.

I'd been financially supported by the WA Department of Culture and the Arts, who funded travel and accommodation costs for four WA shows, two of which were pitching, one showing an excerpt and one doing a full-length showcase. DCA also bravely manned a mobile booth with our marketing material (in my case, a pile of business cards and a bunch of USB sticks). I say ‘bravely’ because I’m not sure they saw much action at the booth. I’m glad I didn’t fork out and hire one myself. It would have been physically impossible anyway, given the task of pitching, networking, starting conversations and building relationships, all of which had to be done away from the booths at The Hub (about which also more anon).

In fact I’d been to APAM once before: only two years ago, as it happens. However, that was in Adelaide, and on a mere artist’s pass, for a mere two days (for an afternoon’s rehearsal followed by a morning showcase), while the show’s producer stayed on for the rest of the week as a delegate. Being in Brisbane for the full five days as a fully-fledged delegate and presenting a pitch was a totally different experience. Exhausting doesn’t begin to describe it.


I’m starting to write this Postcard on the long flight home to Perth, and I’m going to compose my recollections and thoughts in the form of a journal. This will help me revisit the events of each day, including what I saw, heard, felt and did. Consequently it’s going to be a somewhat more personally focused Postcard than usual. I’ll include short reviews along the way of some of the showcases I saw, at least when these were of entire works (but not excerpts or pitches, which would be totally inappropriate).

However, the experience also gave rise to some wide-ranging thoughts about APAM, my own work, and the politics of the performing arts in this country and elsewhere. Admittedly these thoughts are from my perspective as an individual theatre-maker based in WA. So this particular Postcard from Brisbane is still very much a Postcard from Perth as well.


Day 1: Tuesday 18/2

Having checked into my handy Brisbane heritage-housed backpackers the night before – after a weary four-and-a-half-hour flight from Perth – I lugged my dazed and confused, two-hour-behind time-lagged body down the road to the Powerhouse to register, receive my pass, deposit my marketing collateral at the DCA booth, and front up for the first day’s caravan of events, including a ticketed Welcome Lunch, Keynote Event, Opening Ceremony and opening night showcase performance (also ticketed). As I arrived at the Powerhouse, I passed a number of familiar faces dragging travel luggage to and fro, including one or two national and international presenters I’d diligently emailed in advance suggesting we meet (and in most cases never laid eyes on again).

On arrival I was given my red delegate pass and a carry-bag containing two solid tomes: the hefty Program Guide and even heftier Delegate Directory. I went to register as an artist as instructed and collect my artist pass and show-bag, but after a search it appeared there wasn't one with my name on it. 'Don't worry, you won't need one. The delegate pass will get you in everywhere, and there's nothing in the artist pack except a water-bottle.' I was now officially a delegate, and had left my artist-identity behind. 

I’d innocently expected ‘The Hub’ – the designated area for registration, information, lunch, celebratory events, cabaret evenings and the entire week’s pitch program (as well as the exclusive hangout for delegates to eat, drink and ‘network’) – to be located inside the lovely, ambient, air-conditioned, open-planned Powerhouse itself, with its sprawling complex of theatres, foyers, bars, cafes, restaurants, balconies, offices, rehearsal rooms and meeting places overlooking the Brisbane River. It’s the kind of venue, incidentally, that Perth is still crying out for, notwithstanding the barren, brutalist concrete bunker we got as our State Theatre Centre.

Imagine my dismay instead when we were herded inside a huge marquee across the walkway from the Powerhouse, with a raised stage at one end overlooking black tables and chairs arranged cabaret-style and blasted by industrial fans in a vain effort to counter the intense Brisbane summer heat and 100% humidity. This, alas, was The Hub: my primary workplace and play-space for the next five days. My heart sank as I imagined delivering my pitch here in three days’ time. Beyond was an outdoor area (also for delegates only) featuring a bar, some portable toilets and a few takeaway food and coffee stands. It was at least marginally less sweltering than the inferno inside the tent.

During the interminable welcome lunch speeches I became desperate, cracked in my resolve not to drink alcohol during the day and lunged for a bottle of sauvignon blanc. There was a ripping sound, and shortly afterwards a certain State Theatre Company artistic director who shall remain nameless gaily called out: ‘Humphrey, you’ve got a hole in the back of your shirt!’ Sure enough, I reached back and felt the gaping tear in my already threadbare public image. It was a sign. Despite my delegate pass, my hastily printed business cards and sticky-labelled USB sticks, there would be no escaping my unmistakable status as an actor-bum at this august gathering of dignitaries. I decided to live up to it, live it up, relax and make trouble. If some disdainful presenter treated me like Bruce Banner, I would become the Incredible Hulk.

After lunch we thankfully trooped across to the air-conditioned Powerhouse Theatre for the Keynote Event. This was a panel discussion rather nauseatingly titled ‘Make Every Conversation Count’ which promised to ‘explore the ideas of collaboration and co-creation’. I’m used to hearing terms like ‘collaboration’ or ‘co-creation’ used by artists. This was not the first time however I was to hear them appropriated by presenters over the next few days.

The panel was hosted by an SBS TV presenter (who seemed totally out of her depth) and featured Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art director Chris Saines, theatre director and founder of Arts Network Asia Ong Keng Sen, ‘independent curator and director’ Alicia Talbot and ‘independent indigenous Australian dancer and musician’ Eric Avery (I’m quoting their descriptions from the program guide). I sat with a bunch of delegates from the US and started chatting to a contemporary performance-maker from Minneapolis with a wry sense of humor who became my APAM buddy over the next few days, as we kept meeting up at shows and events and mostly agreed about what we saw.

Ong Keng Sen dominated the Keynote Event with considerable charm, wit, wisdom and experience. He spoke of how cross-cultural collaboration is possible between individual artists ‘as micro-action, not macro-politics’; was skeptical about the value of political correctness or identity politics; and encouraged collaborators not to avoid conflict or get bogged down in discussion (‘artists need to be able to talk, but it is not always about nattering’) but to work slowly and in stages:‘You need time
in between, so you make work in a modular way. There needs to be time apart. Time heals.’ He identified cross-cultural work in particular as providing ‘a space where two cultures move to a third space, not colonizing each other, both trying to move to a new aesthetic destination’.

As the youngest member of the panel, and the only performer or Aboriginal artist, Eric Avery carefully articulated the importance of ‘respect’ for any genuine collaboration. Finally another Aboriginal artist spoke up from the audience, passionately demanding he explain the situation in Australia to international delegates. Eric’s voice trembled as he tried to describe his own personal struggle to find respect and walk between two worlds.

It struck me that ‘collaboration’ as a creative term implies a sharing of power between artists; as opposed to the more hierarchical relationship between employer and employee, or other regimes I’m familiar with in my capacity as an actor in a traditional rehearsal room. What I was hearing about, and witnessing, at this moment was not collaboration, cultural or otherwise.

As if on cue, the TV presenter-moderator intervened to keep to the schedule and shut the conversation down, despite Keng Sen’s gentle insistence that ‘in this case, right now, we need to keep talking’. Instead, the session was wound up, and we all obediently went outside to watch the Opening Ceremony: a welcome to country, smoking ritual, and symbolic offering of traditional dances from Aboriginal, Islander and New Zealand artists, followed by the Opening BBQ.

There was no reciprocal symbolic offering from the whitefellas. I wondered what it would be, anyway. A scene from Shakespeare? A rock’n’roll act? Whatever I thought of felt contrived, borrowed, stolen or second-hand. I watched an Aboriginal kid dancing with his elders. He must have been about four years old, but at least in that moment, he knew who he was, and where he belonged.

Nevertheless, the Opening Ceremony felt tokenistic after what had occurred inside, and there was a feeling of unease amongst the delegates. I felt ashamed of the backwardness of my country, especially in the eyes of the international contingent. It’s a familiar feeling these days, whether in regard to our treatment of asylum seekers, our denial of global warming or our bullish championing of economic ‘growth’. I sought out Keng Sen and thanked him for his contributions, and likewise Eric Avery for his honesty and courage.

After the BBQ we trooped back inside the Powerhouse Theatre for the ticketed opening night showcase: a full-length performance of Shaun Parker’s AM I. Billed as ‘a ground-breaking new music and dance collaboration’ that ‘investigates the quintessential meaning of “I”, it involved 14 musicians, 7 dancers, Kathakali-derived hand gestures, hynotic unison movement, blinding lighting effects and a lot of glib New Age text. I thought it was beautifully danced but found the whole thing super-smooth, superficial and a condescending exercise in cultural appropriation after the previous events of the day. ‘National Geographic dance’ was the scathing verdict from Minneapolis. We said  goodnight and hoped for better days ahead.


Postcard from Perth/Brisbane: APAM Diary (Part Two) continues on Friday.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Postcard from Perth 12

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Perth Festival 2: I Think I Can, You Once Said Yes, Situation Rooms

Fun and Games

A signal strand in this year’s Perth Festival program is specifically devoted to digital, interactive, participatory and immersive artworks. In the last week, I’ve experienced three of these works: I Think I Can, You Once Said Yes and Situation Rooms.

Actually the program itself stresses the ‘digital’ label in isolation, perhaps as a more easily identifiable marketing tool. This emphasis is superficially misleading and at the same time deeply revealing.

Even at first glance, the technological buzz-word ‘digital’ sits oddly – and is even arguably at odds – with the more properly bio-psycho-social concepts of interaction, participation or immersion in the real world of the physical environment, other people and the process of making or experiencing art. Let’s be precise: ‘digital’ is a term derived from counting and applied to the processing of information. As such, digital technology is a tool, no more, no less. It can be either liberating or repressive, as its revolutionary or reactionary use for communication or surveillance currently demonstrates around the world. Its emancipatory potential in art is no different.


I Think I Can is a free, family-friendly event at the WA Museum, created by Sam Routledge and Martyn Coutts and produced by Intimate Spectacle in association with Terrapin Puppet Theatre and the Fremantle and District Model Railway Association, in collaboration with local writers and animaters.

Basically, it’s a big model train set, including a miniature town and tiny figures. You do a short personality test and are allocated a toy ‘avatar’. You then issue short instructions to one of the animaters about where in the town and in what physical attitude you want them to place your avatar in relation to others. You also dictate a short scenario which is relayed to the writers by SMS. Live-cam feeds broadcast the resulting ‘scenes’ throughout the day on a website and a large screen overlooking the town. Virtual newspaper ‘stories’ are written by the local writers and posted on the website describing and interpreting the scenes, accessible at home or via computer terminals onsite. 

Both times I visited the museum there was a long queue and an estimated hour’s wait before I could participate. I hate queues and waiting, so instead I walked around the periphery of the town observing the action (and interaction). As it happens I’ve subsequently been able to participate in the work more fully at The Powerhouse in Brisbane, where it’s installed during the Australian Performing Arts Market (using a different local model railway). More about APAM in a future post, by the way.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time at the Museum, although some audience members looked a bit confused, there was some conflict between children and parents at the computer terminals, and the animaters looked a little stressed rushing around attending to people’s requests and then moving their avatars around with tweezers. In fact the calmest participants were a group of elderly men in uniforms standing in the centre of the town, whom I took to be members of the Model Railway Association. It certainly was a magnificent model railway, the trains came and went with impressive efficiency, and the custodians looked justly proud.

However I couldn’t help feeling that whole point of a model railway is that you operate and inhabit it yourself. In the case of I Think I Can the process of playing freely and directly had been successively mediated by personality tests, avatars, animaters, writers, cameras, screens and computers. In fact the level of choice is limited and the level of input heavily filtered by all of these variables, which are set by the creators of the work. Our level of participation was little more than that of test subjects in a controlled experiment.

I didn’t have a model railway as a kid, but I loved playing with toy cars, miniature soldiers and model warships and planes. I also loved dressing up and pretending to be other people. I grew out of war-games (unlike some in the military or the current federal government) and even toy cars (though I do occasionally drive a real one), but I never stopped dressing up and pretending.

I Think I Can is a very different kind of show, however, from one put on by actors or children. As the title suggests, it promises to magically translate our thoughts and wishes into reality by the force of sheer willpower – with a little help from technology (and a willing labour-force of art-workers dancing attendance on hand or behind the scenes).

As such it’s a classic case of infantile wish-fulfilment; perhaps even a classic case of adult fantasy (if not fetishism). It's also an emblematic work of postmodern pop-culture – which from Warhol to reality TV has (knowingly or naively) offered us the poisoned chalice of narcissistic gratification by means of the mass media, with all its false promise of interaction, participation, fame, personal fulfilment and alternative ‘realities’.


You Once Said Yes in contrast is a one-on-one promenade performance that eschews digital mediation and involves real live actors. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Katie Lyons and directed by Mimi Poskitt for the UK company Look Left Look Right, it’s performed in the streets of Northbridge by a local troupe of twelve actor-improvisers.

I can’t say much about the content of the show without spoiling it. To be blunt, it's actually pretty thin: the characters and storylines are clichéd, and there’s little to bind them together apart from a few set-ups along the way. As with I Think I Can, there’s not much in the way of substance here, and the overall mood is a postmodern melange of sentiment and mockery.

On the other hand, I was more than impressed by the work of the local actors. They fleshed out the characters as best they could given the limits of the script, and were charming, funny, sincere and surprisingly believable. I’m not a natural improviser, but I felt in safe hands throughout. In fact, I had a ball.

Admittedly I knew most of the actors, so I was hardly taken out of my comfort zone. Nevertheless I had that sweet sensation that even the thinnest one-on-one participatory performance can give of feeling my surroundings defamiliarized and the boundaries between fiction and reality pleasantly altered for a while afterwards.


Situation Rooms is by far the most complex and substantial of the works under consideration. Its subject-matter and level of investigation distinguish it from most other works of this kind I’ve seen; and its fusion of immersive, interactive performance, digital technology, documentary theatre and installation art achieves a genuinely new formal hybridity.

The work is created by the team of German author-directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel who collectively form Rimini Protokol, in collaboration with designer/scenographer Dominic Huber, whose contribution in the form of the set is perhaps most impressive of all. The subject matter is the arms industry in all its ramifications, and the subjects are twenty interviewees from around the world and across society, including a German police officer, marksman and sports shooter; a Pakistan solicitor representing victims of drone attacks; a French security systems developer; a South Sudanese journalist and development aid worker; a Mexican drug gang operative; an refugee from Syria and another family of refugees from Libya; a first lieutenant in the Indian air force; a cafeteria manager in a Russian arms factory; a Congolese child soldier; a computer hacker from the US; a Swiss arms factory worker; an Israeli soldier; a German surgeon with Doctors Without Borders; a German war photographer; and various peace activists and politicians.

In terms of content, Situation Rooms does for the legal weapons trade what Traffik (the Soderbergh film and original British TV series) did for the illegal drug trade. In terms of form, however, it eschews fiction for documentary, and invites us to participate by identifying with the subjects and their situations, crucially by entering disturbingly real simulations of their homes and workplaces. We are given headphones and iPads, and then listen to the voices and follow the images of one subject after another as they navigate us through a labyrinth of meticulously reconstructed rooms in which we are given tasks and interact with objects, furnishings, equipment, machinery and each other.

It’s like playing a game. And for me that was also part of the message: that not only do we all play roles – and to some extent are the roles we play, even when we exchange them – but also that we all play a role in the global situation that is the arms trade: either directly, as producers, consumers, beneficiaries or victims; or indirectly, as members of social groups, organizations, institutions or even economies that are all ultimately linked in some way to the trade itself.

However, Situation Rooms is actually subtitled ‘a multiplayer video piece’. Is this simply a cynical piece of marketing; a symptom of a broader cultural trend; a commentary on the subject-matter of the piece; or perhaps all of the above?

For me, the iPad was redundant, if not actually an obstacle. In fact I got lost three times while glancing between screen and surroundings and trying to follow visual cues; I had to find an emergency exit door and be redirected back to my next designated room by a helpful Perth Festival attendant. No doubt this is partly a function of my age and lack of coordination. However I couldn’t help longing for the freedom to simply listen to the voices of the subjects, look at the exquisitely detailed rooms, follow verbal instructions and even stop and linger at times. I don’t think I’d have missed the contrived, somewhat awkwardly coordinated sightings, encounters and transactions with the other participants; on the contrary I’d have preferred our paths to cross at random.

In other words, I think I’d prefer to immerse myself in the piece as an installation rather than a game. Again, perhaps this is a function of my own personal preference for aesthetic contemplation or creative play rather than playing games, the task-based nature of which I generally find stressful and restrictive.

The iPads effectively separated us from each other, the work itself and its subjects. Their screens rendered us as isolated spectators rather than audience-members, let alone true participants in the unfolding of events.

This effect isn’t merely formal, instrumental or even experiential: it’s profoundly ideological and even theological. As surely as a traditional picture frame, a proscenium arch, or a cinema/TV screen, but more insidiously and ubiquitously, the hand-held device is a false window that simultaneously opens onto its subject or subject-matter and renders it as absent or elsewhere. While purporting to ‘connect’, in practice it disconnects us from each other and from reality. This is not only the case in the context of live performance, by the way.

As the short essay on 'theatres of war' in the program for Situation Rooms points out, it’s no accident that the internet was invented by the military. In the guise of extending our capacities, it has now infiltrated into all aspects of our lives.

Situation Rooms thus ends up being complicit in the very situation it describes. In the most chilling ‘scene’, we share a small room with a drone operator, sit in his chair and stare into his computer screen. In a sense, we’re accessories to such remote-control war-crimes every time we stare into our own devices, large or small. 


Situation Rooms runs until February 23; You Once Said Yes finishes on March 2.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Postcard From Perth 11

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Perth Festival 1/Fringe World 3: Otello, Not By Bread Alone, Mies Julie, Great White, Squidboy, She Was Probably Not A Robot, MKA: Unsex Me

It’s been a big week. Perth Festival kicked off last Friday, and Fringe World is now in full swing with just over a week left to run. I've been spending my days doing a workshop with the doyenne of voice and Shakespeare, Kristin Linklater, who's visiting Perth, and my evenings seeing multiple shows. Next week I'll be at the Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane, but I'll still be posting on shows I've seen in Perth and haven't had time to write about yet.

This week I want to review my first three Festival experiences (Otello, Not By Bread Alone and Mies Julie) and my last four Fringe World adventures (Great White, Squidboy, She Was Probably Not A Robot and MKA: Unsex Me).


Opera rather than spoken-word theatre is arguably the true successor to Greek tragedy. It derives or recycles much of its material from the same mythological sources; it borrows many of its formal devices (such as the chorus, and even the term ‘orchestra’) from the same fusion of drama with music, singing and dancing; and it has (or at least had) a similar social function in relation to the community (consider the role of opera houses and amphitheatres in the foundation of modern and ancient cities).

In terms of social content, however, opera as a secular ritual separated itself from religion (unlike Greek tragedy), at least in terms of Christianity, whose founding stories are henceforth relegated to oratorios and church music. Yet even in this regard, opera retains from its sacred origins a ritual, formal and thematic preoccupation with sacrifice: from the death of Eurydice and the agony and dismemberment of Orpheus to the immolation of Don Giovanni and the emotional pain/pleasure of his victims; the debased and tortured heroines and heroes of Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini; the slaughter or self-immolation (and moral self-torment) of Wagner’s protagonists; Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande; Strauss’s Salome and Elektra; Berg’s Wozzeck and Marie, or Lulu and her lovers; Britten’s perverse anti-heroes and abused innocents.

In the twentieth century, opera’s form and function is arguably succeeded by film as the contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk of drama, sound and visual spectacle which specializes in suffering and becomes the ideal new medium for melodrama. There’s even a sacrificial aspect to the fate of certain performers, in the eyes of the media and the public if not for their families and friends, as if their misfortunes, addictions and deaths were viewed as the culminating performance of their career.

As a popular genre, opera reached its peak (or more precisely the twin peaks of Verdi and Wagner) in the nineteenth century, which (with the exception of Ibsen) is not an era notable for great spoken-word theatre. There’s something about the Romantic sensibility which lends itself to the grandeur of opera. The form also found a new role in the formation of nation-states. The content of Romantic or ‘grand’ opera is at once personal and overtly political: from Verdi’s historical operas to Wagner’s Ring.

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Othello would seem to lend itself most readily to opera (perhaps along with Romeo and Juliet), at least in terms of romantic tragedy. Verdi’s treatment is one of several, though by far the greatest, and some argue his greatest work. In fact Otello is that rare case in any art-form: a great adaptation of a great original.

On the other hand, Boito’s libretto downplays the political and racial themes of the play. By cutting Shakespeare’s first act, the historical and social context of Venice, the war with the Ottoman Empire and the attack on Cyprus by the Turks are largely eliminated in one fell stroke. Most of Iago’s racial slurs against the Moor (which largely occur in Act 1) are also suppressed. And by cutting the character of Desdemona’s vengeful father (together his benevolent counterpart the Duke of Venice) Verdi foregoes two of his own favourite patriarchal archetypes.

This textual reduction serves the archetypal purity of the characters who remain, in particular the central trio. Desdemona becomes indeed a paragon of purity, almost an angel; Iago a devil, or at least Satanic (a Byronic anti-hero at best, and at worst a demented psychopath); and Otello a deluded and despairing lover whose crime is one of pure passion (and implicitly exonerated as such) and the colour of whose skin is irrelevant except as a signifier of his role in the sacrifice as a monstrous beast.

Conversely, each of the protagonists is given a signature soliloquy lacking in Shakespeare (to whom the libretto is otherwise remarkably faithful). In Act 2, there’s Iago’s diabolical Credo in un dio crudel (‘I believe in a cruel God’); in Act 3, Otello’s heartrending Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali (‘God, you could have thrown every evil at me’); and in Act 4, Desdemona’s lambent Ave Maria. Interestingly, each of these defines the character in relation to God and religious faith (or lack of it) in the context of Verdi’s (and more broadly the nineteenth century’s) implicitly godless universe (in contrast with Shakespeare’s). In fact these are probably the only ‘big numbers’ in an opera that is otherwise largely devoid of arias, and indeed is arguably also Verdi’s most ‘Wagnerian’ work, both in terms of musical expression and dramatic content. In this regard one might add the exquisite love-duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of Act 1, Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor (‘Now in the dark night all noise is silenced’), reprised at the end of the opera as Otello expires over the corpse of his wife after ‘one more kiss’ (Ancora un bacio). When the curtain falls at the end of Act 1, Boito and Verdi allow the newly-weds a fulsome consummation which Shakespeare arguably denies them; while the end of Act 4 constitutes a chamber version of the Wagnerian Liebestod.

Of course text in opera does not convey meaning and sense in isolation but as one element of the score. Verdi’s genius as a musical dramatist lies in his capacity to express nuances of sensation, emotion, image, thought, action, character and theme with a breadth that matches the supreme poet-dramatist Shakespeare himself. This union of text and score in turn forms part of a performance that includes the collaborative work of conductor, orchestra, actor-singers, stage director and design team.

In the world of opera there’s currently a debate about the relative role of directors and conductors that mirrors the one about directors and playwrights in the realm of spoken-word theatre. In brief: the director is increasingly seen (by producers, presenters, marketing departments, audiences and fellow artists) as the leader of the team if not the ultimate ‘author’ of the production in theatre and opera, much as they are in film. As an aside, performers are generally disenfranchised in the context of this debate, unless they’re celebrities, independent or associate producers themselves, or genuine partners in a collaborative dramaturgical process (a rarity even in mainstream theatre, let alone opera). All of this has advantages and disadvantages for the work as a whole, as we shall see.


Last Saturday I saw the new co-production of Verdi’s Otello by (deep breath!) WA State Opera/Cape Town Opera/New Zealand Opera/Opera Queensland/State Opera of SA/Victorian State Opera/Perth International Arts Festival at His Majesty’s in Perth. It bravely climbs the mountain of what is arguably the greatest of all Romantic operas with varying degrees of success along the way but ultimately fails to reach the summit or come to grips with the work’s underlying ritual nature.

Highest marks go to the WA Symphony and conductor Joseph Colaneri for a sensitive, intelligent and sensuous rendition of the score; Nick Schliepper’s characteristically uncompromising lighting, coolly sculpting characters from the side and drenching them in blue or red neon from above as their collective descent into hell progressed; and a tremendous performance from James Clayton as Iago, his physical ease onstage matched by a glorious voice, in a portrayal that was all the more chilling for its admirable restraint. In fact by interval at the end of Act 2 after the Credo I almost wanted to call the opera Iago instead. Only in his scenes with Otello did I sometimes feel he was in danger of seeming overbearing. This Iago hardly seemed to need guile; he looked capable of murdering Desdemona, Otello, Cassio and Roderigo all by himself.

Things became more problematic with Otello, Desdemona, and the staging, set and costume design. Antonello Palombi clearly has the formidable role of Otello under his belt, but his acting and singing were one-dimensional until the final Act when he displayed real tenderness and became genuinely moving. Conversely, I found his parlando delivery of Dio! mi potevi scagliar less effective than simply singing the notes as Verdi wrote them without letting feigned emotion get in the way.

Cheryl Barker’s Desdemona was hardly angelic, but voluptuous as a courtesan and with a voice to match. At first I found her generous vibrato difficult to reconcile with the character or the genre (I think I would found it more suited to Wagner or Strauss than Verdi). Again however I found her more convincing in Acts 3 and 4 – especially her glowing Ave Maria – and her mistreatment and murder by Otello evoked genuine pity and terror.

And so to the staging and design. Director Simon Phillips and designer Dale Ferguson have set Otello on an aircraft carrier. In theory this is consistent with the military context, and moreover tightens Boito’s confinement of the action to Cyprus even further by reducing it to an artificial, cut-off, claustrophobic island of tension, heightened masculinity and repressed violence. Otello meets Billy Budd – or perhaps The Caine Mutiny.

The problem arose with the degree of scenic naturalism, along with some unnecessary, noisy and distracting set changes. Simon is a great visual storyteller – despite his love of language, sometimes I think he’s a silent-film director at heart – but in this case I felt the staging embellishments got in the way of the music and the drama, which when left unimpeded tell a deeper, richer and more detailed emotional story than the exercise of replicating a ship’s bridge, compile with desk-top computers, headphones and video screens, a meeting room with rows of chairs, or a cabin with portholes and a sliding bed, all being wheeled or carried on or off like the set of a Hollywood film or Broadway musical. 

The musical and dramatic language of Verdi (and indeed Shakespeare) is neither naturalistic nor illustrative but elemental, visceral, heightened and ritualized. Peter Brook’s Carmen got it right: Romantic opera is all about the bull-ring and the sacrifice.


On Sunday afternoon I saw two shows: Not By Bread Alone at The Regal and Mies Julie at The Octagon.

Not By Bread Alone is performed by the Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Theatre Ensemble of Tel Aviv and directed by Adina Tal. The performers include eleven deaf-blind actors and ten hearing-seeing translators who use a combination of speech and Sign language to communicate with the audience. There are also English surtitles, as the performers who speak (including the interpreters) do so (I think) in Hebrew (and perhaps occasionally Russian) and their speech is to a greater or lesser degree distorted by their deafness. This varies, along with their blindness, but most suffer from both. They communicate with each other and the interpreters using different spoken languages, versions of Sign and especially touch. Live drumbeats are used to signal scene changes as the performers can feel the vibrations.

There are also lighting and sound cues, including a welter of sentimental recorded music, presumably for the sole benefit of the seeing and hearing audience. In fact someone behind me was whispering the surtitles to her companion throughout the show. At first I wondered if they were blind. Then I began to wish I was deaf, at least for the duration of the show. Not only would I not have to hear the continuous talking behind me; I wouldn’t have to listen to the excruciating soundtrack continually accompanying the action onstage and drowning it in treacle.

The performances were without exception beautiful and at times enthralling, regardless of their talents as actors (one or two were gifted musicians, mimes or clowns). During the show, they make bread; while it bakes in onstage ovens, they tell their stories and dreams, and collectively act them out. At the end of the show, the bread is shared with the audience. A simple and even generous act of theatrical communion, or so one would think.

Yet the whole experience made me deeply uncomfortable. I enjoyed the personal monologues the most, and was fascinated by the intricate practicalities of communication and translation. The collective musical entr’actes, routines and pantomimes on the other hand had me squirming. I felt like I was at the circus or the zoo, watching freaks or animals dressed up and performing like people – or more precisely, watching people being dressed up like performing animals or freaks.

Sentimentality and cliché occur when nuance, context and particularity are occluded. The suppression of what is not-said is more insidious than what is not-seen or even not-heard because of blindness or deafness. For example, I found myself wondering if there were any Israeli Arabs among the performers. Certainly the names in the program mostly looked Jewish, European or Russian, and their speech mostly sounded like Hebrew. I wanted to learn more about this aspect of their histories and circumstances. This was a stage community that seemed artificially circumscribed by the limits of their disabilities alone.

The most moving and revealing moment occurred for me early in the show when one of the performers said she baked her bread to give to soldiers. Later another performer spoke of her dream of living a normal life, and having a son in the army. These fairy-tale-like references to the reality of a permanently militarized state were the only hint of a social-political reality that – had it been acknowledged onstage – would have taken us beyond mere sentimental clichés. Instead of being defined by their disabilities, the performers would have been treated like fully-rounded human beings.


Later that afternoon, I went to see Mies Julie.

The Octagon is in my view by far the best purpose-built theatre in Perth. It seats about 600 people in a gently tiered auditorium that radiates out from a thrust stage which is fully visible from every seat in the house. The ambience is inclusive; the acoustics are as good as the sightlines; the seats are comfortable; even the colours and materials are inoffensive. The only downside is its location on campus at UWA in Nedlands, so far away from the hub of the city’s cultural life in Northbridge. It’s too bad there’s nothing like it at the State Theatre Centre.

Mies Julie is a contemporary South African adaptation of Strindberg’s play, rewritten and directed by Yaël Farber. I’ve seen the latter more than once, but after seeing this version I felt like I’d never seen it before, and now I can’t imagine seeing it any other way. Farber has transposed the action from a 19th century Swedish farm to 21st century South Africa – specifically a farmstead in the arid region of the Karoo. The rural setting of the original acquires added potency in the adaptation. This is given an extra twist when viewed through the eyes of an Australian audience, and perhaps even more so a Western Australian one. WA has become the adopted home for many white South Africans; and our geography and culture share many of the same features, especially in regional and remote areas. For this reason alone, Mies Julie is an astute piece of programming by Perth Festival.

In complete contrast with Not By Bread Alone, here was a work which foregrounded social and historical context, and in which group identity – here attached to skin-colour rather than physical disability – was exposed as being determined by the politics of class rather than being ‘naturalized’ or reduced to illness or biology.

Hilda Cronje as the Afrikaaner landowner’s daughter Julie and Bongile Mantsai as the African farmhand John played out a riveting relationship that progressed (or regressed) in rapid stage-time from mistress and servant to childhood friends to passionate lovers, partners in crime, violent antagonists and finally instruments of mutual destruction like two people possessed. ‘You don’t love me,’ she says at one point in Farber’s tough, tautly worded translation, ‘you just hate yourself.’ To which he replies: ‘You don’t know how to love. No-one taught you.’ There’s a masochism at the heart of Strindberg’s plays, and his view of women and men, that was brought out all the more powerfully in the context of racial politics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen onstage sex or violence enacted with more skill, courage, justice or poetry.

The work of these two central actors (who never left the stage) was supported by the touchingly real performance of Thoko Ntshinga as John’s mother Christine, the formidable presence of Tandiwe Lungisa as an ancestral spirit and singer-musician (using handmade traditional and folk instruments), two other live contemporary musicians, and simple, realistic yet ritualized costumes, props, set and lighting. This was the elemental staging I longed for in Otello. In fact the two stories could almost be performed side by side on the same bloody sacrificial altar.


And so back to Fringe World.

On Tuesday night I went to PICA to see previews of Great White and Squid Boy – two fresh remounts of recent works featuring ocean marine life as their titular totems. Once again, apt programming for a fringe festival at the edge of the world. The following night I saw She Was Probably Not A Robot at The Blue Room, followed by MKA: Unsex Me at Noodle Palace – The Ken Dome. Both less aquatic but (in the case of Unsex Me especially) considerably more out-there.

Great White was first staged last year at The Blue Room, before the WA and federal government-sanctioned trapping and killing of our local apex ocean predator began. The beach has a special cultural and geographical significance for Australians – perhaps even more so for Perthians, and particularly right now. When even a bourgeois playground like Cottesloe is hosting demonstrations against shark culling, you know you’re on a national fault-line in terms of environmental politics. As for the social, psychological and symbolic significance of our ocean borders: the demonization of boat-born asylum-seekers and ‘people-smugglers’ indicates the fragile boundaries that distinguish, separate and protect our sense of self from what are perceived as foreign, dangerous, predatory others, human or otherwise.

Great White is written and directed by emerging local theatre-maker Will O’Mahony for his company The Skeletal System. It features a luminously simple, tangible yet abstract set design by company co-founder Alica Clements, a subtly compelling sound design by Will Slade, effectively understated lighting by Joe Lui, and beautifully judged, witty and touchingly real performances by Adriane Daff, Mikela Westall and especially Will himself.

I can’t say too much about this play without giving the game away. I must also declare my own involvement as a mentor with the previous production.

Suffice to say that Great White take seriously the conceit that you are what you eat. As Hamlet put it, ‘a man may fish with a worm that has eat of a king, and eat of the fish that has fed of that worm’; but the only fishing here is for the audience to take the bait. The writing and staging invite us to keep our ears open, to see with our imaginations as well as our eyes, and to stretch our minds and our hearts. Beyond the deceptively simple story there’s an entire cosmology, and perhaps even an ethics.

Will’s plays seem whimsical at first but gradually reveal themselves to be finely yet deeply etched parables that don’t yield easy or obvious meanings. Their fantastic plots and twisted structures remind me of Kafka, Murakami, David Lynch or Charlie Kaufmann, but they inhabit worlds entirely their own and are quintessentially theatrical. Characters, dialogue and events seem familiar, even mundane, yet at the same time elusive, strange and even surreal. Ultimately I think they’re all about the nature of love, but perhaps so is everything.

There’s a hint of a moral message in the repeated wordplay on the theme of ‘being great’ that didn’t quite land for me. Nevertheless, it sustains and transforms itself like the principle theme of a classical sonata through the play’s twists and turns, as it keeps us guessing, plays off tension against comedy, times its reveals and reversals, and probes unexpected depths.

Great White isn’t really a fringe show at all, except perhaps in terms of production resources. Indeed I’d argue it’s the kind of local work that would totally satisfy mainstream audiences and should be seen on our main-stages. Black Swan and PTC take note, and bring it on.


Squidboy on the other hand is definitely pure fringe. Like its companion piece She Was Probably Not A Robot, it’s a solo show in the school of the notorious Dr Brown (aka Phil Burgers), and the esteemed École Philippe Gaulier. Both shows come to Perth straight from the Edinburgh Fringe.

The main differences between them lie in the stage personas of their respective writer-performers. Both are lanky sensitive young men with full beards, but Squidboy’s Trigve Wakenshaw is a prancing, sly, fastidious and (in his own words) ‘a little bit camp’ New Zealander, while Not a Robot’s Stuart Bowden is a more uncertain, direct, clumsy, dour Melbournian.  

Both shows have a dreamlike narrative structure that interweaves two apparently separate storytelling protagonists (one human, the other squid – or intergalactic alien, respectively) whose fates and personalities eventually merge. Both are highly self-reflexive and even recursive in writing and performance style. And both combine a human tale of personal loss with an underlying despair over economic and environmental unsustainability and even planetary catastrophe that reminded me in more ways than one of Tim Watts’s epic Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.

Unlike the low-fi multimedia spectacle and puppetry of Alvin, however, Squidboy and Not a Robot use audience interaction, improvisation, clowning, mime, multiple role-play, imaginary friends, half-baked vocal characterisations and improvised home-made costumes. Wakenshaw wears yellow knee-boots, turquoise pants, blue gloves, a white shirt, a brown tie and (concealed beneath his dryza-bone and sou’wester) a polar-fleece cut-out girdle and wrist-sleeves with squid-tentacles and a cap made from the same material with squid-eyes on either side. Bowden is more dressed-down: initially hidden beneath a white sheet, then revealed in dark lyotards, singlet and headband – his ‘not a robot’ alien invoked by simply donning a silver-foil covered cardboard-box helmet with a Ned-Kelly slit for his/her eyes and nose. There’s no set for either show; virtually no lighting cues; and a few performer-operated sound-cues (and a hand-held Casio keyboard) for Robot.

Both shows are minimal, rough, surreal and hilarious. More than once I thought of The Goons, and especially the manic-depressive genius of Spike Milligan. The writing and performance style are deeply personal and have a studied vulnerability that could become cloying if they weren’t executed with such skill and authenticity. There’s also a darkness to the content that keeps sentimentality at bay. As with Great White, beneath the whimsy this is theatre at the edge of the world, and perhaps even at the edge of reason and sanity. In other words, it’s on the edge of the present, where we all teeter, cling, and live.


After She Was Not A Robot I made my way from the Cultural Centre in Northbridge across Perth Train Station’s pedestrian overpass to the other side of town and Fringe World. Apart from the occasional crack-or-alcohol fuelled zombie stumbling past, Perth’s CBD is virtually deserted after dark: a labyrinth of mostly closed department stores, shopping malls and arcades. Down one of these is the Piccadilly Cinema Centre, formerly an art deco theatre and subsequently converted and expanded into the last remaining operational cinema complex in the CBD until it finally closed down in 2013. It’s reputedly haunted by a patron who was trapped overnight, fell down the stairs and died. It’s also the venue for this year’s Noodle Palace – The Ken Dome: an off-beat Fringe World venue for cabaret, comedy and weird shit.

Unsex Me is another, even more extreme offering from Melbourne new writing company MKA, who also brought the controversial Dogmeat to Fringe World (reviewed last week). I found Dogmeat thrilling, but I’ve since discovered that not everyone feels the same way; I’ve heard it described as gratuitous and deeply offensive. Anyone who feels that way should think twice before venturing to see Unsex Me, as it makes Dogmeat look like Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music. Although on reflection, there’s more than a little of Julie Andrews in Unsex Me.

It’s written and performed by Mark Wilson – or more precisely, ‘Academy-Award winning actress Mark Wilson’, who’s preparing for her next role, Lady Macbeth, in a production directed by her father (also a famous actor). She’s got a pale, haunted, angular El Greco face (and beard); she’s wearing (at least initially) a floor-length tartan dress and a black wig (both of which come off eventually); and her voice prowls and shifts across registers (that is, when she’s not lip-synching pop divas). She performs on a small stage with a sofa, a microphone, some condoms and lube.

When I turned up at 9.45pm there were about twenty punters packed into the sagging vinyl front seats of a tiny, sweaty, carpeted cinema that reminded me of the porn movie scene from American Werewolf in London. In fact, there’s something of the latter’s fusion of low-brow horror, sex and satire with something more profound, sad, and even strangely beautiful about Mark Wilson’s remarkable performance as ‘Mark Wilson’. Julie Andrews meets John Landis, perhaps. With a touch of the Patrick White who wrote The Twyborne Affair or Memoirs of Many in One.

Unsex Me does pretty much what it says on the label. I laughed, I cringed, I struggled, I had my face in my hands at one point, and my mouth open almost as wide as Mark’s at another. His microphone technique is jaw-dropping; and covered with condom and lube it goes more places more inappropriately than Ray Martin’s did on A Current Affair. Beyond the camp sex-show, however – and beyond its excoriating diatribe against theatre, celebrity, patriarchy, and even the truisms of queer-theory – Unsex Me’s gender-bending is devastatingly faithful to Shakespeare, and perhaps to everyone’s inner experience of psychical reality. In its own way, it’s even more operatic than Otello, and certainly conveys a more primal sense of ritual sacrifice. As Mark screams during the work's climax (if not his own): 'Oh, daddy, daddy, fuck me daddy, excavate my insides!' In the end, we return to Greek tragedy, and the myths that inspired it.


Great White and She Was Probably Not A Robot close on Saturday 15th; MKA: Unsex Me on Sunday 16th; Squidboy runs until next Saturday 22nd.