Monday, 3 March 2014

Postcard from Perth 15

Perth Festival 3: Krapp’s Last Tape, An Iliad, Opus, The Shadow King

After returning to Perth from a week in Brisbane at APAM (see my Postcards from Brisbane: APAM Diary for details of my thoughts and adventures) I tackled my final week of Perth Festival shows. These included two solo works – Robert Wilson’s Krapp’s Last Tape and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad – and two large-scale cross-artform/cross-cultural collaborations: Circa and the Debussy String Quartet’s Opus and Malthouse Theatre’s production of Michael Kantor and Tom E. Lewis’s The Shadow King. More about Perth Festival’s visual art program next week.


In some ways it’s misleading to call Krapp’s Last Tape or An Iliad ‘solo works’. In the case of Krapp, Wilson performs as well as directing, and is also responsible for the set design and ‘lighting concept’. However he’s assisted by a platoon of creative and production personnel, including a wonderful costume design by Yashi Tabassomi (who also co-designed the spectacular set) and memorable make-up by Claudia Bastia; a spectacular lighting design by A.J.Weissbard; and an (at times literally) overwhelming sound design by Peter Cerone and Jesse Ash. And of course the text of Krapp is one of the masterworks of Samuel Beckett – arguably the most influential playwright of the last hundred years with the possible exception of Brecht.

Nevertheless as with all Wilson’s productions the work is unified – in an almost Wagnerian if not totalitarian way – by the singular vision of perhaps the most influential theatre director in the world since Peter Brook, if not Brecht himself. Like both these precursors, Wilson is also a ‘world theatre’ director – in the sense that people speak of ‘world music’ – because he not only makes and shows work around the world, but also works with traditions from around the world, which he synthesizes into his own unmistakable aesthetic. As with ‘world music’, this synthetic approach has its own set of problems, which Wilson’s unparalleled craft as a theatre maker does not always conceal.

The original text of Krapp is only about eight pages long; as such it anticipates the almost Webern-like miniaturism of Beckett’s later works. Wilson perversely blows it up to 70 minutes of theatre, of which the first 10 are wordless (and drowned by the deafening sound of pounding rain) and the next hour stretched out (verbally and especially physically) almost beyond endurance in Wilson’s characteristic style, which draws on traditions ranging from Kabuki to German Expressionist cinema, and which he applies indiscriminately to everything from Strindberg to Brecht, and even opera – which suits it best, at least in the case of already musically long-drawn-out works. Einstein on the Beach for example remains for me an unparalleled experience of trance-like beauty.

Whereas Beckett specifies that the action takes place in a small square of light surrounded by darkness and silence, Wilson stages it in a vast illuminated room, its towering walls lined with shelves and files, its high window-slits flashing with lightning from the cataclysmic storm outside. Krapp meets Endgame, so to speak – in an animated version by Tim Burton, perhaps, or an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price. Indeed, in the slightly camp Edwardian glory of His Majesty’s in Perth, I was reminded more than once of The Fall of The House of Usher. As with so much theatre, film and TV drama these days, the apocalypse was upon us; but if Beckett’s vision is personal, intimate, internalized, and reflects (if anything) the totalitarian catastrophe of WW2 and the Cold War that followed, Wilson’s is impersonal, externalized, technological and resounds (to me at least) with the impact of global environmental destruction. 

The action of Krapp is simple yet infinitely recursive. An old man listens to reel-to-reel tape recordings of himself from earlier decades, and then makes a new one – possibly his last. It’s one of Beckett’s most lyrical and tender works: full of typical bleakness but also a gallows humour that had me laughing out loud when I reread it afterwards. The aching moment when Krapp remembers his mother dying in bed while he’s playing with a dog outside (perhaps a living cousin of the toy dog in Endgame) finds its counterpoint in sexual, scatological or existential one-liners like: ‘The new light above my table is a great improvement. With all this darkness round me I feel less alone’; ‘Whenever I looked in her direction, she had her eyes on me; yet whenever I was bold enough to speak to her, she threatened to call a policeman’; or ‘Have just eaten I regret to say three bananas and only with difficulty refrained from a fourth. Fatal things for a man with my condition’; not to mention the name ‘Krapp’ itself.

Beckett’s simplicity, profundity, lyricism and humour are of no interest to Wilson as a post-humanist director (who in this regard is comparable to Kubrik in the realm of cinema, as opposed to Beckett’s affinities with Keaton or Bresson). More critically, perhaps, these qualities also lie outside the scope of Wilson’s approach to performance, which is primarily gestural and externalised, like a puppet being routinely manipulated rather than actually animated. This aesthetic is derived from Brecht, German Expressionism, Kabuki and other non-Western theatrical forms, by way of a cool post-60s NYC aesthetic.

Applied to some works, the result can be searchingly intelligent, stunning beautiful, and even emotionally transporting (as was the case with Einstein). In the context of this staging of Krapp, I found it strident, self-important, hollow and tedious. Like all Wilson’s work, it’s flawlessly executed, but as heartless and cold as Wilde’s mechanical nightingale.

This raises questions for me about the role of the director as an interpretative artist, and what happens when that role supervenes on that of the playwright. Briefly: the supererogation of the director to the status of ‘author’ became increasingly marked in the so-called 'postmodern' era that followed in the wake of Brecht and Beckett themselves (who were conversely great 'modernist' playwright-directors). Ironically this reversal coincided with the announcement by Roland Barthes of ‘the death of the author’, about which we might concur with Mark Twain’ joke that recent reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The rhetoric of postmodernism followed a strategic theoretical 'anti-humanist' turn in philosophy (particularly in the work of Althusser and Foucault) that was associated with the advent of structuralism and post-structuralism after the more 'humanist' era of existentialism, phenomenology, hermeneutics and critical theory. This ‘turn’ has arguably now itself been superseded by a new ‘trans-humanist’ version of critical theory informed by the global politics of human and animal rights, social and environmental justice, biodiversity and bioethics. 

In this context it is ironically Wilson’s post-humanism that now seems dated, while the expanded humanism of Beckett – perhaps in a new ‘trans-human’ form – now seems more timely than ever.


An Iliad is arguably even less of a solo show than Krapp. Denis O’Hare performs alongside the superb and visually compelling double-bass player Brian Ellingsen, and they’re supported by a simple but effective rough-theatre set by Rachel Hauck, costumes by Marina Draghici, lighting by Scott Zielinksi and composition/sound design by Mark Bennet. The text is co-written by O’Hare and Lisa Petersen (who also directs), but is of course based on one of the earliest and most influential works in Western literature, and includes key passages from the marvellously dramatic Robert Fagles translation (along with more improvisatory sections which connect it with here-and-now). In fact O’Hare and Peterson’s company Homer’s Coat is described in the program as ‘a collective that explores foundational literature’; they’re currently developing a theatre piece based on The Bible. The overall approach feels a lot more collaborative and plural than Wilson’s, and owes more to Brecht or Peter Brook in terms of its minimal aesthetic: ‘epic theatre’ in both senses of the phrase.  

The shows was staged outdoors in the amphitheatre of the picturesque grove called the Sunken Gardens on the grounds of the University of Western Australia. The weather was glorious the night I saw the show: warm and clear but with a light breeze ruffling the trees and occasionally scattering their leaves across the stage as if to remind us that Zephyrus and the other Greek gods were in attendance.

O’Hare is an enchanting performer who skilfully and directly engages his audience and shape-shifts easily between the characters in the story and his fundamental archetype as a storyteller and contemporary avatar of Homer himself, though this is never explicitly stated. His version of the story focuses on the key narrative arc of the wrath of Achilles and death of Hector, rather than following too many secondary-characters tributaries, the bigger picture of the war or the ultimate fate of Troy itself, though the latter is movingly alluded to at the end.

The text oscillates between Fagles/Homer, brief outbursts in the original Greek, and contemporary references – most memorably towards the end, when O’Hare rapidly recites a litany of wars which seems to accelerate in frequency as it approaches today, halting at Syria (though my mind was hovering over the Ukraine). In short, The Iliad became ‘an Iliad’ for our times – or rather, for our species – and the wrath of Achilles emblematic of that vice in our nature that, uncontrolled, rages across societies and through history. When Kelly wept tears of pity at the end, and then walked swiftly upstage and off through the trees, I felt deeply touched and implicated in the seemingly endless catastrophe of Troy.

Along with Mies Julie (reviewed 2 weeks ago), this was a Festival theatre highlight for me.


And so to two large-scale cross-art-form cross-cultural collaborations: Opus and The Shadow King.

Contemporary circus ensemble Circa is based in Brisbane and currently one of Australia’s most successful cultural exports. In fact Australian circus, dance and physical theatre generally travel well.
In part this is obviously because they’re not text-based performance-genres. However at a forum I went to in Perth recently with a panel of international festival directors and venue programmers on their weary way to Brisbane for APAM, Australian circus/dance/physical work was also identified as having a distinctive and marketable flavour, which combines popular accessibility, irreverent humour, raw physicality and a hybrid approach to genres and art-forms.

In other words, it’s sexy right now.

In this regard, Opus is actually surprisingly serious, sober and even puritanical. Admittedly it does involve fourteen circus performers interacting with members of the Debussy String Quartet, who stand and move around onstage as well as submitting to a degree of manhandling by the performers, including being blindfolded, led around and even occasionally lifted off the ground while playing. However, lighting, stage and costume design are austere (basically black clothes, bare stage with black tabs and mostly white light). More importantly, the music (miked but played live) is by Shostakovich: specifically his String Quartets.

These are of course iconic works of 20th century history. Shostakovich wrote most of them under Stalinism, in the decades after his public denunciation in the 1930 during the Great Terror, and again after WW2 by Zhdanov, for composing decadent Western ‘formalist’ music. The composer submitted a public self-criticism and dedicated himself to writing patriotic ‘proletarian’ music from then on; the likely alternative being death or imprisonment in the expanding archipelago of detention camps.

No one with ears and a heart can fail to hear the personal and collective anguish expressed even by Shostakovich’s ostensibly ‘proletarian’ compositions like the Fifth Symphony, let alone the more private utterances of the String Quartets. In fact Shostakovich’s music is not intellectually or technically ‘difficult’ or even especially innovative in comparison with that of contemporaries like Bartok, let alone Schoenberg or his followers. Despite its dissonances and distortions, it’s harmonically and sonically straightforward and wears its heart on its sleeve. Its demands on the listener (and presumably the players) are unsparingly emotional.

I found the performance by the Debussy players completely enthralling from start to finish both musically and dramatically. The highpoint (if that’s the right word for such a devastating work) was the 8th Quartet (possibly the most personal in the whole series), which they played while being blindfolded and then seated in an extended straight line, as if in front of a firing squad. To put it in context, this single work itself goes for about twenty minutes, becomes progressively more and more heartrending, and is structurally centred on a musical acronym for the composer’s own name, DSCH – D standing for Dmitri, S for E flat and H for B natural according to the conventions of German musical notation).

The surrounding antics of the circus performers were perhaps inevitably not always on the same level as the music, though likewise brilliantly executed. At its best, director Yaron Lifschitz’s choreography achieved a kind of scenic ballet which ironically complimented the music with its own brutal regimentation of bodies. As Shostakovich once said of the superficially ‘jolly’ finale to his 5th Symphony, it was like being threatened with a big stick and forced to rejoice.

Watching the performers literally jump through hoops, stand on their heads or each other’s shoulders, hang upside down by their feet, tumble and fall to the floor, drag or carry each other offstage, stare out with fixed smiles while performing some mind-bending or death-defying feat, or simply walk around the stage with that stiff-legged gait circus artist have, I thought more than once of Olympics from Munich to Sochi, brainwashed populations from Nazi Germany to North Korea, or the survivors and victims of human rights abuses everywhere, including those being perpetrated right now by our own government on Manus Island.

At other times, I must confess, I felt more like I was watching a slightly tasteless circus equivalent to Fantasia. Perhaps the tastelessness itself was part of the show’s meaning. The skills displayed were certainly jaw-dropping.

Seeing a show like this at The Regal in Perth gave it added social content. The Regal is a lovely big old art deco barn, management of which has so far escaped the long arm of AEG Ogden (in fact it’s still proudly owned by the People of Western Australia through the Baker Theatre Trust). It was originally built in the 1930s by no less than Dorothy Hewett’s father and grandfather as a cinema, and used to screen popular Kung Fu and surfing movies on Sundays. There’s still a designated Crying Room at the back of the foyer, leftover from the days of the Saturday matinee Children’s Film Club. What better place to see art-house circus performed to Shostakovich String Quartets?

The crowd certainly seemed to love the show and applauded every act (and movement) enthusiastically. I’m not sure exactly what that means, or what Shostakovich would have made of it.


The Shadow King is an adaptation of King Lear, co-created by erstwhile Malthouse Theatre artistic director Michael Kantor and Arnhem Land actor and Murrungun man Tom E. Lewis (best known for his blistering performance as Jimmy Blacksmith in the great late 70s Fred Schepisi film). It’s also a Major Festivals commission, coproduced by The Malthouse, and first staged there for the Melbourne Festival last year.

Let me say at the outset that I loved the performers in this show, actors and musicians alike. Tom E. is a commanding, thrilling and appropriately unpredictable and dangerous stage presence; Jada Alberts, Natasha Wanganeen and Rarriway Hick made a sympathetic and believable trio of hard-done-by and divided sisters; Jimi Bani and Damion Hunter an energetic and urgent pair of contrasting brothers; Kamahi Djordon King a delightfully camp and engaging Fool and chorus; and Frances Djulibing (like Tom E. a riveting film performer, especially in Rolf de Heer’s marvellous Ten Canoes) as a female Gloucester had a quiet integrity and dignity that for me provided the heart of the show.

Add to this a great onstage band: in particular the traditional singing of Djakapurra Munyarrun which sent shivers down my spine. In fact traditional song provided the two strongest moments of the show for me: Lear’s fierce song of country while stamping the earth at the climax of his ‘madness’ (which in this show wasn’t madness at all); and Gloucester’s quiet song of farewell at the moment of her attempted suicide (which arguably in this adaptation would have been even more powerful if actually followed through). Mention should also be made of Paul Jackson’s typically fine, thoughtful, impassive lighting design, steadfastly refusing to cast emotional or moral judgment on the action.

Beyond this however, I was unconvinced by the production as a whole. Let me say this straight out: I think it’s time white people left Aboriginal people alone to make their own theatre, in their own way, and ideally on their own stages. Conversely, I think the most positive contribution white theatre directors can make to Aboriginal performers right now is to start casting them ‘colour-blind’ in decent roles, regardless of their Aboriginality. Beyond that, self-determination is artistically and politically the order of the day.

In the past, white directors like Neil Armfield and Andrew Ross undeniably played a vital role in putting Aboriginal stories and actors onstage, in plays like State of Shock or the works of Jack Davis. Now it’s time to hand back the power along with the land, and to look to directors like Wesley Enoch, David Milroy, Rachael Mazza, Kyle Morrison and others to lead the way, as their activist forerunners did in the black civil rights movements in the 70s in Australia. This last incidentally is powerfully documented (and relentlessly pursued) in Richard Bell’s thrilling exhibition at PICA, Tent Embassy, which I visited on Saturday afternoon before seeing The Shadow King. More on this and other visual art shows at the Festival next week.

The Shadow King is billed as being ‘co-created’ with Tom E., but my intuition is that Michael Kantor as director and co-designer would have most likely initiated and almost certainly led the development of the work through to production. Regardless of this, though, my biggest question is: where’s the playwright? There’s no evidence of one on board, either in the program or onstage. Without a writer, a work of text-based theatre of whatever stripe is dead in the water. Ideally, again, they would also be Aboriginal; here in WA someone like Kim Scott springs to mind, with his specific interest and involvement in the politics of language. But again, such niceties seem to have been bypassed.

As it is, we’re given an optimistic mix of dumbed-down Shakespeare, Kriol and tribal language. The last was the most effective for me, especially in the songs. It didn’t matter if I didn’t understand the words. At least sounded like they belonged to the performers – or more precisely, the performers belonged to the language they were singing.

The dumbed-down Shakespeare was the worst; and I’m not just talking about the language, but the play and the story itself. Let Kurosawa’s magisterial film adaptations of Macbeth and Lear provide contrasting instruction. The comparison is cruel, but invited by the title of show, which unwisely invokes another great Kurosawa epic, Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior. In the case of Kurosawa, not only do we have one great artist rising to the occasion of another; we have a total reimagining of Shakepeare in the context of medieval Japan, such that not a single word of Shakespeare (at least in his original language) is left. The result is two new masterpieces called Throne of Blood and Ran.

Closer to home, writer-director Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea at The Malthouse ten years ago successfully transposed Euripides to a contemporary cross-cultural outback setting and turned it into a domestic tragedy. This worked because Medea lends itself to being about cultural and gender conflict and violence. The result was a performance of unforgettable power, and unreservedly the most effective staging of the play I’ve ever seen.

In the contrasting case of The Shadow King, there is simply no consistent rationale, process or effort to transpose the original to a new cultural or formal context. Without a strong sense of political purpose or theatrical praxis, Michael’s laudable love of pantomime as a vernacular and potentially disruptive form – the hallmark of his best work at the Malthouse – here has the effect of reducing both Shakespearian and Aboriginal characters to the level of pop-cultural clichés (much the same, incidentally, can be said of Baz Luhrman’s screen adaptations of Shakespeare or Fitzgerald, IMHO). The satirical thrust of pantomime loses its bite, and has the effect instead of softening the impact; the tale and its telling both become toothless. At the end, the band strikes up, the cast dance back onstage, and we all laugh, cheer and applaud them and ourselves, wander back out into the foyer and go home. As for the cast…well, that’s another story, and one we probably don’t want to know or talk about.

It’s not enough just to plonk some Aboriginal language (or indeed performers) onstage and hope for the best. In fact, I was surprised how little Kriol or tribal language there was, and how much leaden Shakespeare remained. Bleeding chunks of dialogue were preserved, half-bowdlerized but still replete with words, sounds and rhythms that sounded awkward and foreign on the actors’ tongues; not to mention figures of speech referring to animals like wolves and vultures which are totally alien to the Australian landscape or culture. Even Shakespeare’s character names were jarringly maintained as if to prevent us from reconciling or even believing what we saw and heard.

It might be argued that the device was one of Brechtian alienation, modernist collage or even postmodern mash-up. But the question remains: to what end? Popped into the stylistic blender, it all comes out as culinary entertainment in the end (to quote Brecht’s favourite epithet for bourgeois theatre).

Most indigestible of all were the symbols – fundamental in Lear – of crown and land as objects and emblems of property and inheritance. In my understanding, these concepts have no purchase, so to speak, in traditional Aboriginal culture, and consequently the story made no sense to me, at least as it was baldly presented. I could only understand it in the context of what has been introduced into Australia since white invasion; but such broader social and cultural politics were completely absent from the script or indeed the stage (where mysteriously no white characters appeared – an exclusion as artificial, limiting and false as the invisibility of Aboriginal people in Flood, reviewed in a recent Postcard).

In fact Shakespeare provides the perfect opportunity for such a context in Lear with the key roles played by Burgundy and France, who like Fortinbras in Hamlet (or any number of characters in the history plays) represent the existence and impact of a world beyond the immediate one of the protagonists, whereby the fragility of the latter is underlined. We could have seen these roles played as (not necessarily by) whitefellas, well-meaning or otherwise: a benign mining magnate, perhaps, or social worker – or even a theatre director.

Without even the level of social or historical context provided by Shakespeare, the story of Lear reverts to fairytale or myth. Perhaps this was the intention; if so, it could have been realized only by taking us to a sacred place. This was not achieved by sprinkling some red dust on the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre, wheeling on a gigantic piece of revolving stage machinery representing a ute, and adding some crudely literal ‘filmic’ back projections and sound effects.

The closest we came to sacred theatre was, as I’ve mentioned, the songs of Gloucester and Lear. Without the surrounding apparatus of inept white middle-class theatre trappings, these songs could have really taken us somewhere – ideally out of our white middle-class theatre seats and into real sacred country.

To be honest, I’m tired of seeing these efforts to harness and recreate traditional Aboriginal culture in well-appointed bourgeois theatres, as if we could suck their cultural blood like vampires in an effort to revitalise our own. It’s time to go out and experience Aboriginal stories and storytelling where they actually belong: in country and on land that’s actually theirs, and as their guest. Let this be the next Major Festivals cross-cultural commission, rather than yet another indoor pantomime; and let it be given to an Aboriginal artist or company.

As I’ve argued in my postcards from APAM in Brisbane, true collaboration requires a genuine sharing of power. Failing this, at best it’s just tokenism; at worst, yet another act of cultural appropriation.

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