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.

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