Thursday, 30 January 2014

Postcard from Perth 9

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

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

Playing Mothers and Fathers

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thank God for Fringe.


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

Monday, 20 January 2014

Postcard from Perth 8

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA

Sacred Sites

Chris Isaac’s new play Flood is first cab off the rank for Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2014. More specifically, it’s the first of two Black Swan Lab productions in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre; it’s also the opening theatre production for Perth Fringe World Festival. Not surprisingly, therefore, the show sits across a number of fault-lines; in fact psychological, cultural, geographical, climatic and even tectonic instability are central themes in the play.


The Studio Underground is a problematic venue in terms of ambience, scale and economics. Located in the bowels of the State Theatre Centre, it’s a dark, cold, hard, unwelcoming environment – and that’s even before you get past the foyer and bar to the theatre itself. The latter only seats about 200 max, but it’s cavernous in dimensions, the seating configuration options are limited (and will soon be declared inflexible), and venue costs (mainly due to staffing requirements) make it an almost guaranteed loss for hirers.

Part of the problem is inherent in the design and resources of the venue; partly it’s that management has been outsourced by the state government to a commercial operator, A.E.G. Ogden  – who also manage His Majesty’s, Perth Concert Hall, Subiaco Theatre Centre, Albany Entertainment Centre, Perth Arena, and various other theatres, arts centres and arenas around the country. This means that (even with the best will in the world) there’s a fundamental mismatch between the commercial imperatives of venue management and the needs and resources of the people who use it (artists, theatre companies and the theatre-going public). This mismatch is arguably common to all public institutions and services (essential or otherwise) that are sold or outsourced by the state to commercial operators. For my money, the role of the latter is to manage commercial enterprises, not State Theatre Centres. Perhaps it explains why visiting or working there feels a bit like entering a commercially-run prison – a feeling enhanced by the architecture and design of the building and central courtyard. You almost expect to see screws patrolling the walkways, dragging their batons along the railings or staring down at you, as you go about your business down below hoping to make or see some theatre.

There’s a corresponding confusion about the function of the venue, too: is it to house a resident theatre company (or companies); to be a producing venue in its own right; simply to be a venue for hire; or perhaps all of the above? If the first, or even the second, applies, where are the production and design workshops and storage facilities? Black Swan sets and costumes for example are now constructed and stored out at Belmont, closer to Perth Airport than the theatres for which they are intended. Despite the company offices upstairs, and the labyrinth of corridors and rooms downstairs for management, technical and catering staff, rehearsal-rooms, dressing-rooms and even mysterious ‘multi-purpose’ rooms, sometimes the place feels like little more than a shell. One is reminded of the famously efficient hospital with no patients in Yes Minister.

To some extent, this reflects the confusion of purpose and crisis of identity that now besets arts centres everywhere. Following the development of London’s South Bank Centre in the 1950s, multi-functional venues began springing up in capital cities, across the country in Australia in the 70s and 80s, from the Adelaide Festival Centre to the Sydney Opera House to the Arts Centre Melbourne – primarily to house state theatre, opera and ballet companies and orchestras that had outgrown their tenancies in the old Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco commercial theatres and town halls. They continue being built today in regional centres like Albany (and Perth). Meanwhile mainstage theatre and dance companies in Sydney and Melbourne have progressively managed to free themselves by building home venues of their own. 

In this regard it’s worth noting that the WA Symphony is already is housed in the Perth Concert Hall, built with remarkable foresight back in the 70s on a magnificent site overlooking the Swan River and designed with superb acoustics (unlike the Heather Ledger Theatre in the State Theater Centre). One can only hope that – perhaps with a little tinkering around the edges and a few improvements internally – the State Theatre Centre will likewise come to find and play its own unique role in the landscape, especially once the refurbishment of Perth Station is completed and the venue no longer opens onto a vast building site (and probably the least pedestrian-friendly street in the city). Otherwise it risks becoming a monumental white elephant: at best, a vain act of cultural-palatial folly; at worst, a cynical act of pork-barreling by a corrupt state government in the dying days of the mining boom. ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ As in Shelley’s poem, only time will tell.

Underlying all this is a broader crisis in the viability and sustainability of traditional arts, entertainment and media platforms, producers and workplaces – from theaters, concert halls and cinemas to studios, broadcasters and publishers (and beyond these to manufacturing, distribution and retail generally) – in a post-industrial era of globalization, automation, digital technology and a knowledge-based economy. How venues, companies, audiences and artists (or indeed art-forms) will weather this sea-change remains to be seen, in Perth and elsewhere. Sacred sites, cultural rituals and traditional practices may have to adapt to a radically altered environment.


Against this background of uncertainty, Black Swan is in the process of transition – from a small-to-medium-sized and largely State government-funded company (established in the early 90s by Andrew Ross, an artistic director with a distinctive vision of WA theatre and its relationship to Aboriginal and European settler culture) to a self-titled ‘Flagship’ State Theatre Company supported by the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council alongside the WA Opera, WA Ballet, STC, MTC and other national institutions deemed ‘Major Performing Arts Organizations’. Moving into the State Theatre Centre has been a crucial step in this transition.

The Black Swan Lab is a new initiative supporting the work of emerging and resident artists with the company. Chris Isaacs developed Flood while a member of the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group. He’s also a member of Perth independent company The Last Great Hunt – which also includes members of other local indie companies like The Duck House, Weeping Spoon and Side Pony. It’s all a bit confusing, but basically reflects the collaborative and cross-platform nature of theatre and performance making in Perth. The cast of Flood includes Will O’Mahony (independent writer, director and artistic director of his own company The Skeletal System) and Adrienne Daff (an independent performer and devisor who’s also a member of several companies including The Last Great Hunt and Side Pony); movement director Danielle Micich is an independent director, choreographer and performer; director and dramaturg Adam Mitchell has been an associate artist with Black Swan for about ten years; sound designer Ben Collins was a Resident Artist last year; set and costume designer India Mehta, lighting designer Chris Donnelly and actor Joshua Brennan are all Emerging Artists with the company this year. All in all, it’s good to see a State Theatre Company collaborating with local artists like this. It’ll be interesting to see how the Lab develops and what effects it has, both in relation to the surrounding Perth independent scene and the company’s mainstage season in the Heath Ledger theatre upstairs. It’ll also be interesting to compare with independent initiatives and seasons springing up across the country like Neon at MTC, Helium at The Malthouse, Griffin Independent or La Boite Indie. One signal difference is that all the artists involved in the Lab are being paid a wage or fee rather than taking a cut at the door, which is to be applauded. Wesley Enoch, take note!

At this point it’s probably incumbent on me to declare that I’m a resident artist at Black Swan myself this year. Nevertheless, I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with Flood – so I feel I’m in a position to review and reflect on the show, which I think is an important new work on many levels, especially because of the issues it raises surrounding the representation of race and racism onstage (and by implication offstage as well). However, it’s impossible for me to do so without describing it in some detail, and from a critical perspective. So this is also probably the point to issue a spoiler alert to those who haven’t seen it – and a warning to those involved in producing and performing it: Caveat emptor! Read on at your peril; if in doubt, don’t; or read this only after you’ve seen it - or the season’s over.


There’d been an attempt to ‘Fringe-ify’ the foyer and bar of the Studio Underground for the opening night of Flood by making it more funked-up – if not user-friendly –with a walkway of overhanging spear-like fronds tipped with red paint (or perhaps the blood of unwary patrons). Inside the theatre, the seating blocks had been unfixed and rearranged (apparently for the last time in this supposedly flexible studio space) on three sides in a thrust configuration – of dubious benefit, at least to my eyes, to the staging, audience or performers, since direct address was largely the order of the day. In order to allow for the sight-lines of the side seating blocks, the stage had to be pushed well back from the front row of the central block – which meant that those in the back rows were a long way away from the action. Nevertheless, there was a sense of having made a real effort to transform the ambience of the space.

The ensemble cast of six were pre-set lounging or crouched in various positions and attitudes around a raised stage of artificial rock in the shape of roughly concentric ledges or terraces descending to a central pool, which filled up with water halfway through the show. A decade ago (when I arrived in Perth) it would have been orange pindan dust covering the floor: a sure sign that an unimpeachable work of ‘West Australian theatre’ was about to unfold. Now it was fake orange rock. I think the pindan was marginally more convincing. Certainly it was easier for actors to navigate, notwithstanding some subtle but effective (and, for the most part, convincingly inhabited and executed) choreography by movement director Danielle Micich, which helped to integrate the staging and action, and make the show a work of physical as well as verbal storytelling.

Flood also presents as a ‘Fringe’ show in terms of the ‘edginess’ of its personnel and (at least putatively) its form and content. The characters (at least those who are visible and have a voice – about which more in due course) are six young white Anglo-Celtic middle-class urban hipsters (three boys and three girls) in their late teens or early twenties, who reunite for a road trip north and inland: a familiar rite of passage for anyone who’s grown up or had kids in Perth. The form is ensemble storytelling theatre – with direct address to the audience shared amongst the cast –alternating with flashes or scenes of dialogue, in sometimes uneasy juxtaposition. Nevertheless, the generic tropes that spring to mind are ones we associate less with theatre than film: in rapid succession, teen-movie morphs into road-movie, then tantalizes us with the prospect of caper-movie, slasher flick and (most promisingly of all from my point of view in terms of language and imagery) apocalyptic sci-fi, before finally settling into the group-crime/collective-guilt/shared-secret sub-genre familiar to anyone who’s ever seen Deliverance, River’s Edge, Jindabyne or even (to sink a little lower into the murky depths of pop culture) I Know What You Did Last Summer  – not to mention the movie that arguably got the ball rolling, John Huston’s 1948 classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre.

The locus classicus on the subject in the field of psychological anthropology is of course Freud’s Totem and Taboo, with the hypothesis of the primal horde (derived in turn from the sociobiological speculations of Darwin) and the collective murder of the father by his sons (the so-called ‘band of brothers’), which according to Freud lies at the origin of all religion, law, and society. In the context of Flood, it’s worth noting that Freud’s speculations even begin with an analysis of the function of totemism in Aboriginal Australia. Even more relevant to the play is the extension of Freud’s hypothesis by the French literary scholar René Girard in Violence and the Sacred, with his theory of mimetic desire and the sacrificial function of the scapegoat, which allegedly plays a central role across all cultures and cultural forms, including literature and drama.

As for what I’m calling the ‘sub-genre’ of collective guilt or the shared secret, there’s obviously a family resemblance with broader literary, theatrical or cinematic genres like tragedy, crime or even noir in terms of plot, character, setting and themes – typically including murder (and even multiple fatalities), illicit sex, a flawed protagonist (or group-protagonist) – who is often also a killer or accomplice, and may even ultimately die themselves – a fatalistic world-view and a universe correspondingly governed by inexorable and cruel laws. The specific setting may be (as in classical tragedy) the aristocratic world of the court; or (as in crime fiction) the country manor house, urban jungle or small-town community; or finally (as in rural or outback Gothic) the country town, the remote property, the highway, the river, the lake, the mountains, the forest or the desert.

It’s worth noting in this regard that this sub-genre typically deals with settings riven by fault-lines of class-conflict, often defined by subsidiary markers like age, gender, sexuality, skin-colour, language, nationality or culture. Perpetrators and victims often confront each other across these fault-lines: most memorably perhaps in the case of Deliverance with the conflict between the urban tourists and hillbillies  – although one also thinks of the three-way conflict over the stolen gold between the American prospectors, Mexican bandits and militia in Sierra Madre, the various generational and sexual conflicts in River’s Edge, or on a more simplistic or token level the role of the dead Aboriginal woman in Jindabyne (in comparison little more than an add-on to the original Carver story). Indeed, the limitations of genre become apparent as soon as this level of attention to the mechanics of class – which gives a film like Deliverance its compelling and enduring power, beneath the mechanics of character, plot and even environment – falters or relaxes its grip.

To switch to TV for a moment, I’ve recently been watching a prime example of contemporary Gothic noir in Jane Campion’s haunting but dubious series Top of Lake – ‘dubious’ because of the way the series applies the more-or-less predictable tropes of the genre (rape, murder, disappearance, incest, sexual perversity, monstrous fathers, corrupt cops, drug-dealing bikies) to a moralizing and ultimately reductive agenda (in this case, the all-too-predictable exposure of sexual abuse in the context of a remote and impoverished New Zealand community whose principal livelihood inevitably revolves around the manufacture of amphetamines). 

The problem lies in the tendency of ‘genre fiction’ or ‘genre films’ (in this respect not unlike the ‘genre paintings’ of earlier centuries) to substitute clichés or stereotypes for fully individualized characters or realized settings, genuine depth of motivation or analysis, or an original or convincing plot. When this happens, the dictates of genre take over from the autonomous rules of art or logic, the principles of psychology or the dynamics of social reality. In brief: form and content become derivative rather than drawn from actual experience. This substitution isn’t necessarily the result of laziness or lack of talent; rather, it reflects the commercial imperatives of the culture industry, which tends only to invest in the manufacture and distribution of identical commodities for mass consumption in the age of mechanical reproduction (Hollywood, anyone?).

In the case of Flood, harnessing the ensemble-storytelling-theatre form to the group-crime/shared-secret sub-genre in order to ‘plough the field’ of white Australian collective guilt is a noble and ambitious enterprise that didn’t quite work for me. At first I was happy to go along with the superficial characterization and clichés of the teen-road-movie genre (complete with an almost non-stop cinematic soundtrack continually telling me – in case I had any doubt – what I was watching or how to respond). My attention was held partly because of some finely tuned and engaging acting, which gave colour and depth to the sketchy nature of the characters, but also because of a level of self-reflexive ‘meta-generic’ irony in the script (including a mocking reference to Cloudstreet as the tattered icon of West Australian fiction and theatre) which kept me in there with promises of a WA outback version of Wes Craven’s Scream (perhaps via the classic Ozploitation flicks of the 70s, up to and including Wolf Creek). And with the arrival of the group at a mysterious water-hole, ensuing late-night campfire intimations of unresolved group dynamics, some odd behaviour from a weird mob of neighbouring kangaroos, and a cataclysmic dust storm, I was feeling game for some outback atavism along the lines of Walkabout, Wake in Fright, The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock or even (at the tail-end of the meteor-storm of Australian independent cinema in the late 70s) the overblown mysticism of The Last Wave.

But then, about twenty minutes in, a crucial turning-point lost me for the rest of the show: the unexplained appearance (as if out of nowhere) of a nameless and essentially featureless Aboriginal man – barely described as barefoot, possibly drunk, speaking in an incomprehensible language and apparently insisting that the group vacate what is presumably a sacred waterhole (in which they are all frolicking naked). His featurelessness is so to speak ‘dis-embodied’ by the fact that – being an outsider and intruder in relation to the storytelling group – he doesn’t (and indeed can’t) actually appear or speak in person onstage. In other words, he is pure projection –the Other in its primordial negativity. This inherently unstageable encounter with something utterly unreal and insubstantial (like an all-too literal figuration of the archetypal Jungian Shadow) leads (likewise unstageably) to a violent confrontation, and then (once more unexplained and out of nowhere) the murder (with a hammer, no less) of the outsider/intruder by one of the group, Mike (again, well-acted but critically underwritten in terms of back-story or motivation).

The implausibility of this sequence of events is further ‘underwritten’, so to speak, by the fact that these apparently cool contemporary Perth groovers seem never to have interacted with or even met an Aboriginal person before – or even to be able to decide what to call ‘them’ (stumbling over the political correctness or otherwise of the term ‘indigenous’, seemingly unable to even articulate the word ‘Aboriginal’, and relying instead on a grating repetition of the generic pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ for the rest of the play) – let alone demonstrate any understanding or even awareness of the most elementary cultural protocols. Added to this unlikeliness is that of a solitary Aboriginal person today physically attacking a group of white people for desecrating a sacred site (or indeed for any other reason) – one thinks for example of the astonishing forbearance shown by traditional owners towards tourists who chose to climb Uluru (not to mention all the other offences, intentional or otherwise, daily heaped on past injuries); let alone the unlikeliness of a young white urban tourist responding by killing his indigenous attacker with a hammer.

This fatal turning-point was nonetheless skilfully navigated by the actors (Adrienne Daff giving a fearless and forthright performance as Frankie, the principal cultural offender) – although unnecessarily underscored by the soundtrack and illustrated by the set in what might be a called a pathetic fallacy of staging and design, with the pool at the centre of the rocks beginning (a little noisily on opening night) to slowly fill up with water. The Biblical invocation in the script at this point of some kind of mysterious subterranean upheaval (‘and the rocks were rent asunder’) further emphasized the Christ-like nature of the sacrifice (Girard’s theory of the scapegoat in full dress rehearsal, so to speak). In place of any compelling or convincing social or psychological motivation, a theological rite was being enacted. This was no longer theatre – where the suspension of disbelief is maintained in the fully enlightened consciousness of fictional representation – but the ritualized performance and unconscious re-enactment of pure myth.

From here on until the end of the play, things played themselves out with an almost mechanical sense of inevitability in terms of the writing, if not the acting – from generic acts of emotional blackmail and sexual betrayal by the group leader Sal (convincingly inhabited by Will O’Mahony) to a final paroxysm of suicidal guilt by the perpetrator, Mike (played with a touching innocence by Josh Brennan). Here at least the set design at last paid off with the beautiful, pre-Raphaelite if typically fatalistic image of Mike floating face upwards in the water like Millais’s Ophelia. Yet once again neither the beauty of the image nor the honesty of the performance could convince me of the act itself as an authentic ending to the play.


In the program for Flood, Chris Isaacs says he's ‘aware as a young, male, white playwright [that] the authenticity of certain voices are up for question’. What does this mean, and why does he feel the need to label himself in this way? He says ‘we seem to have a habit of labelling issues in this country’ – so why does he seem do to the same? ‘Race relations in Australia are not just indigenous issues’ – but in defining them as ‘race relations’, haven’t we already labelled them in a way that’s arguably racist in advance? He says he ‘approached the topic from a world I know’ – what topic, and what world? The world of real experience, or the world of genres and received ideas? The word ‘topic’ derives from the Greek topos koinos, meaning ‘common-place’ – literally the ‘common-place’ of standard arguments, materials and rhetorical devices. Such topics and commonplaces are not necessarily reliable strategies for art.

The director and dramaturg of Flood, Adam Mitchell, also has a note in the program, in which he talks about the play ‘continuing Black Swan’s conversation about race in Australia’. A conversation between or amongst whom? A bunch of young, uniformly Anglo-Celtic Australians, who can’t even articulate the word ‘Aboriginal’, let alone talk to one in the flesh? And a conversation about what? The nature or failure of so-called ‘race relations’, or the deconstruction of the concept of ‘race’ itself? In any case, I’m not sure I actually heard ‘a conversation about race’ onstage.

Let it be said: I applaud Chris, Adam, the performers, their fellow-creatives and the company for their courage in putting it out there, on the page and on the stage, and inviting the conversation to take place. Let it also be said that they invite criticism if and where the work fails to measure up to its own intentions. This is after all the only way an autonomous culture can reach true independence and maturity. Too often we are soft on ourselves as artists and critics. As result Australian theatre, film, literature, art and music proceeds in fits and starts, and remains unsure of itself.

I sense this in the way Adam’s program note compares the ‘responsibility’ or ‘connection’ (if any) that ‘a 20-something Australian’ feels to ‘Indigenous Australia’ with ‘the very real sense of guilt for atrocities that took place in Europe more than 60 years ago’ which he encountered in Berlin among ‘German students’ – along with ‘a post-war reluctance to have any pride in modern day Germany or any sign of nationalism or collective pride’. With all due respect to the genocide that took place (and continues to take place) here in Australia, I’m not sure the comparison with Auschwitz is especially illuminating. To be blunt: it’s drawing a long bow to compare the two; indeed, they are radically incomparable. However I also find the need to make the comparison itself revealing. What is the source of our (as opposed to Germany’s) lack of pride in our past or self-esteem in our culture? What is the specific nature of the wounds we carry within us – and perhaps our forebears brought with them – and which we in turn inflict on others less powerful or fortunate than ourselves – Aborigines, refugees – rather than seeking to heal ourselves, and allowing them to do likewise.

What is the distinctive nature of racism here in Australia – and more specifically, racism towards Aboriginal people – both in the past and now, today? How does it reach down into the souls of individual men and women, white and black? Why can’t we ask this question without resorting to anthropological, mythical or theological ideas and fantasies about sacrifice – a label which is as inappropriate and offensive when applied to the genocide of Aboriginal people as it is when applied to the genocide of the Jews? Why do we find it so difficult to put Aboriginal people onstage as people rather than as projections or stereotypes – that is, when we allow them onstage at all? Instead of fatalistic images and narratives of endless conflict and violence, why do we find it so difficult to represent, achieve or even broach the subject of reconciliation in this country, for past and present injustices perpetrated against Aboriginal people and culture? Why do we continue to trade in guilt – and in so doing, to repeat those very injustices, even with the best of intentions (with which, as we know, the road to hell is paved)?

Once again, I think of Sean Tan’s 'Stick Figures' in Tales from Outer Suburbia, and the Aboriginal people and families – the kids and couples and parents and grandparents – who are my neighbours in the suburb where I live: those I say hello to at the bus stop or on the street, and those I walk past and ignore or avoid. I think of the elders and artists and leaders I admire, and those whose authority I question. I think of the Aboriginal people I’ve worked with or know, and whom I think of as colleagues or friends; and I think of the encounters I’ve had with Others – anonymous shadows onto whom I too have projected my own fears and desires. And the more I think about them, all these people, all these shifting categories, the more I feel that, in the end, who you are, or where you come from, or your language, or your culture, or the colour of your skin, makes no difference to me; that in the end there’s no difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – between white, English-speaking, Anglo-Celtic and other Australians; that we’re all just people, brothers and sisters, with more in common that whatever divides us; and that it’s not really ‘race’ that divides us, because there’s really no such thing. What divides us is income, employment, education, health, housing and other basic rights – amplified by the ignorance, fear, hatred, envy, contempt, shame, rage and guilt that follow. In other words: what divides us is class, power and politics.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Postcard from Perth 7

Reviews and Reflections on Theatre in WA 

The Gift of Presence: A Post-Christmas Meditation

The only theatre I’ve seen in Perth over the last couple of weeks has been taking place around me on the streets, in the shops, around the dinner table and at various venues, family-friendly or otherwise. Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night (or What You Will) have come and gone. In fact ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ might be more apt. Expectations and anxieties have run high, performances have been true to form, children have been entertained, and adults less so, if we’re honest with each other.

The world has been turned upside down (even here in Perth at the height of antipodean midsummer) and the Lord of Misrule has once more presided over the Feast of Fools – which certainly describes my family Christmas, not to mention the alcohol-and-amphetamine-fuelled antics around Fremantle and the surrounding suburbs I call home. There’s a darkness at the edge of town here at this time of year; my neighbourhood of Hamilton Hill has resounded nightly with the howls of the walking dead – and I’m not just talking about the TV series, the first season of which I watched avidly on SBS2 after it began screening in November. In fact a visiting ex-Perthian friend recently suggested I post a blog about the series as a metaphor for the city, with particular reference to the desolate, hostile post-apocalyptic glass-and-concrete urban wasteland of the CBD – which indeed bears a striking resemblance to the zombie-infested streets of Atlanta, especially in the run-up (or shuffle-up) to the saturnalian frenzy of shopping and feasting.

Now that some semblance of order has been restored – at least for the time being – I’m driven to reflect on the absurdity of it all: Christmas, seasons, festivities, festivals, theatre and performance in general, here and elsewhere – but especially here in Perth. Between ourselvesso to speak – my wife and I have been thinking about celebrating the winter solstice in June next year with our immediate kith and kin, and absconding for Christmas and New Year – perhaps somewhere a bit cooler down south, like Albany, or further afield, like Tassie or NZ.

As for theatre and performance in a more (or less) conventional sense: the seasonal interval gives me pause to reflect on what it is and why we make or go and see it, especially here at the edge of world. Once again those questions from Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia resound: ‘Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing? What do we want?’

According to local WA hero Tim Winton – in a recent speech at the Royal Academy in London to accompany the Australia exhibition on show there (and reprinted a couple of weeks ago in the ‘Review’ section of The Weekend Australian) – such questions are essentially geographical and unique to his native island-continent. For ex-pat Tassie critic Peter Conrad on the other hand (in his review of the same exhibition for the Christmas issue of The Monthly) such questions are cultural rather than geographical, and the confusion between the two categories betrays the naivety of the exhibition’s curators, together with much of the landscape art they’ve chosen. For me, however, Shaun Tan’s questions are existential. As such, I don’t have any answers, but they resonate all the more profoundly, especially here across the void at Christmas-tide.

Meanwhile there’s a truckload of live performance coming up in February with Perth Festival and Fringe World – not to mention Big Day Out at Claremont Showgrounds and Laneway Festival in Fremantle, followed by West Coast Blues ’n’ Roots in April (with Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, Nine Inch Nails and Queens of the Stone Age thrown in for good measure at Perth Arena across Feb–March). I mention these music acts because for my money there’s a lot more theatre in rock’n’roll – indie or stadium-sized, classic or contemporary – than many a play, well-staged or otherwise. The prospect (if not necessarily the reality) of seeing Leonard Cohen or The Boss at the Arena gives me a similar thrill to the one I felt seeing Ian McKellen at The National (the theatre, not the band) as Coriolanus in 1984, or Willem Dafoe in The Hairy Ape at The Malthouse for the 2001 Melbourne Festival; and I was as transfixed by Nick Cave the first time I saw him – when he was just a caterwauling pup with The Boys Next Door at the Crystal Ballroom in 1980 – as I was by Julie Forsyth the first time I saw her in Kids Stuff at Anthill in 1984. So I’m still asking my daughters who’s worth catching live at Laneway or the Bakery; and I’m still dragging one or other of them to see a show I think will be hot (or cool) at Fringe World or The Blue Room – even if expectations aren’t born out, or we don’t ultimately agree.


What is it we’re hoping to find in the fleeting experience of live performance?

I had a conversation about this on New Year’s Eve with a man I’d never met before (but like me a friend of our mutual host) who was sitting at the dinner table opposite me and my wife. In fact the conversation itself – and indeed the whole evening, like New Years’ Eves generally – was something of a performance, and my wife and I were relieved when we could finally sing Auld Laing Syne and go home. In the meantime, our dinner companion wanted to talk to us about being performers (as non-performers invariably do) and I indulged his speculations for a while before turning the tables and asking him about himself (which is usually more interesting for everyone).

He turned out to be a software designer who worked for the mining industry (as most people seem to in Perth, one way or another – at least if they want to earn any money at all). Nevertheless he was anxious to communicate his own artistic and even environmentalist leanings – although both seemed currently unfulfilled, at least in terms of his work for the mining industry. In fact, like Gertrude in Hamlet, his heart seemed veritably cleft in twain by the apparent conflict between his aesthetic, moral and practical inclinations. He soothed himself by being a patron of the arts, and described how he found himself drawn to the stage-presence of performers he admired (our host and Leonard Cohen among them). I suggested he try resolving the conflict more actively by applying his (literal and figurative) software to environmental conservation rather than destruction. However it struck me that artistic patronage had more immediate allure for him: partly because it enabling him to continue speculating and investing his resources more profitably in digging money out of the ground, so to speak; but also because of the aura which certain performers and performances evidently held for him.


This ‘aura’ is a constituent element in all ‘original’, ‘unique’ or ‘authentic’ art – as famously described by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1936 essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (an essay which is itself ironically one of the most mechanically reproduced works in the annals of cultural theory and criticism).

I myself here ‘reproduce’ the terms ‘aura’, ‘original’, ‘unique’, ‘authentic’ (and even ‘reproduction’ itself) in quotes, partly because they’re Benjamin’s terms, but also because I’m uneasy about them. Partly my uneasiness stems from the fact that they’re often used as terms of aesthetic, moral and even spiritual evaluation (or devaluation, as the case may be); but I’m also uneasy about their application to performance.

Unlike the work of art considered as an object (for example a Rembrandt painting), terms like ‘original’, ‘unique’ and ‘authentic’ seem problematic when applied to acts of creative interpretation (by actors, singers, musicians, dancers, directors, designers, choreographers, etc) – especially to existing works (like plays, scores, librettos, scenarios). Such performances are at least in principle capable of rehearsal and repetition – and hence can’t be described as original, unique or authentic (at least not in the same sense as the Rembrandt painting) – notwithstanding claims regarding the use of ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ instruments or practices by the Academy of Ancient Music or Shakespeare’s Globe. In fact such terms are even problematic in the realm of visual art – for example when applied to works by Warhol, as recent legal disputes testify.

Benjamin however applies these terms primarily to works of art considered from a strictly historical, sociological and economic standpoint as objects and commodities. He also applies the concept of aura to the work of performers – both onstage and off. In particular, he describes the 'shrivelling of aura' on a film-set, which is partially compensated for by the cult of personality off-screen (I’d add to this the aura of the image on-screen, especially in close-ups).

Benjamin derives the aura of art from its original ‘cultic’ value in magic or religious rites and rituals; and he contrasts this with its ‘exhibition’ value as society becomes secularized. In both cases, he attributes the aura of artworks and artists to their ‘presence at a distance’ – which is not a bad description of a painting on gallery wall, or a performer on a theatre or concert stage. It also brings to mind the phenomenon of being ‘cool’, which implies a kind of internalized distance on the part of the subject or object in question, together with a universal extension of the concepts of art and performance (Warhol, again).

For Benjamin, however, aura– and indeed live performance itself – is in decline since the invention of photography, film and sound recording. These inventions abolish the ‘distant presence’ of the auratic object or performer, and replace it with mechanically reproduced images – which ultimately become accessible and available instantly to everyone everywhere (in this respect Benjamin’s essay strikingly anticipates the advent and impact of the internet).

According to Benjamin this process heralds the historically determined transition from capitalism to socialism (via the convulsions of fascism) and from religion to politics, both inside and outside the sphere of the arts. Indeed, he makes some revealing observations about the progressive ‘politicization of art’ under socialism, the reactionary ‘aestheticization of politics’ characteristic of fascism, and the changing nature of democracy in the age of the mass media. These observations might suggest that all may not proceed as smoothly as the dialectic of productive forces might promise – whether in Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany or so-called liberal democracies.

Enter Adorno, stage left – or stage right, depending on your sense of orientation – with a post-Marxist critique of the concept of progress, the dialectic of enlightenment and the domination of nature, as well as a modernist defence of autonomous art against the onslaught of the culture industry. In fact Adorno's friendly but critical letters to Benjamin in 1936 on the mechanical reproduction essay make for thoughtful reading on the revolutionary potential of art and technology. It's worth noting in this regard that Adorno underestimated the autonomy of jazz or rock'n'roll, just as Benjamin overestimated the progressive limits of mainstream cinema – not to mention the fusion of high and popular culture that would revolutionize both in the 60s. 

I’m largely convinced by both Benjamin’s and Adorno's critical analyses of art, culture, society and politics, but skeptical about their judgments, recommendations or prognoses. These seem to be driven by a sublimated theology – positive or negative, as the case may be – in the guise of a political and technological utopianism (in Benjamin’s case) or pessimism (in Adorno's case) which history itself hasn’t borne out.

On the one hand (as Baudrillard described from the late 60s into the new millenium) the very forces of mechanical reproduction praised as revolutionary by Benjamin have spread capitalism and consumerism around the globe – initially through the mass media and then in an accelerated, ubiquitous and hyperreal form via digital media and the internet – in a mesmerizing 'worldwide web' which Benjamin could not possibly have foreseen. This is not to say that the technology itself is to blame; that would be merely the negation of Benjamin’s utopianism (Baudrillard’s nihilism). It is simply to point out that technology in and of itself will not free us, whether in the context of politics (Facebook, Twitter, e-petitions), poverty (genetically engineered crops) or the environment (carbon sequestration, nuclear power), let alone culture (computer games, virtual realities). Freedom does not consist in the accumulation of means, but the self-legislation of ends.

On the other hand, for better or worse, ‘unique’, ‘original’, ‘authentic’ (or, to use the term preferred by Adorno, ‘autonomous’) art and performance still exist in the here and now – even if they sometimes look like becoming an endangered species. Perhaps like all such species they simply adapt or migrate – in response to changing social, economic or technological conditions – by changing forms or platforms: going underground, going mainstream, going electric, going unplugged, going digital, going back to vinyl, going into fusion or back to their roots. Or perhaps they just vanish: time’s up. Nevertheless, across media and platforms – from books and CDs to photographs, films and TV shows, from publishing or recording to broadcasting or uploading – even virtual art and entertainment still take place somewhere in ‘real’ time and space, even if it’s just between me and a small personal screen.

This is not to say either that we can reserve the claim of freedom for the enclave of autonomous art (or philosophy) alone. On the contrary: our freedom as artists (and even as thinkers) depends in the final analysis on the freedom of everyone else – and of all our faculties, including our bodies and emotions as well as our imagination and thoughts. As Adorno wrote in a letter to Benjamin on the relationship between autonomous art and popular culture: ‘both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up.’

In any case, the aura of art and artists – including live performances and performers – seems to have survived and even thrived in the catastrophe of commodification that now casts its shadow across the planet (and even into outer space, if we can credit plans for a reality-TV colonization of Mars). In fact, whether enduring, declining or fluctuating, as the case may be, aura is still what makes art and artists such eminently collectable investments, socially if not financially: ‘cultural prestige capital’ for patrons like my New Year’s Eve interlocutor (with perhaps a warm inner glow of spiritual salvation thrown in for good measure). Professional artists can’t avoid this fate, any more than their patrons or collectors can. We’re all producers, consumers and even commodities ourselves now. As I wrote in my previous Postcard, at least since the end of the Middle Ages artists have necessarily been tradesmen and businessmen as well as being craftsmen (and women); while patrons and collectors are also investors – of their money, their time, and perhaps their souls as well. Funding bodies, producers, presenters, publicists and critics meanwhile serve as cultural middle-people in what is after all a market like any other (APAM, anyone?).


The picture looks grim, but all is not lost. ‘Pessimism of the intellect,’ as Gramsci wrote (admittedly from prison), ‘but optimism of the will.’ Perhaps Adorno’s distinction between the ‘function’ (Funktion) and ‘content’ (Gehalt) of art can help us here – based on Marx’s analysis of the difference between the use-value of labour and the exchange-value of the commodity-form in which it congeals under capitalism. Whether as artists, patrons, collectors, critics or audiences, we must learn to distinguish between the economic and social function of art (in Marx’s terms, its exchange value) and its content (or use value) as an irreducible form of experience.

This irreducibility is perhaps what Adorno called the ‘non-identical’, in order to designate its resistance to conceptualization or exchange. As such it resembles Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’ (the ‘supersensory substratum’ of things beyond the categories of perception we ascribe to them) or Lacan’s ‘objet petit a’ (the ‘lost object’ of desire). To return to my guiding question: it’s what we’re seeking in the theatre or the concert venue, on the page, the canvas, or the screen – or more precisely though them, because it never actually appears in or on them as such.

Reading Benjamin in this light, the aura of art has both a nostalgic and redemptive ‘content’ (in the Adornian sense), above and beyond either the ‘cultic’ function from which it derives or the ‘exhibition value’ that appears to be its bourgeois destiny. In fact, there’s a paradoxical ‘distance’ (to use Benjamin’s word) – or even a ‘deferral’ or ‘difference’ (Derrida) – at the heart of presence itself, which is revealed in the experience of aura: the ‘crack in everything’ though which ‘the light gets in’ (Leonard Cohen).

In an otherwise somewhat anomalous passage in the essay on mechanical reproduction, Benjamin describes the appearance of aura more closely (so to speak) as ‘the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be’ (my italics). This implies that an ‘internal distance’ may lie at the heart of presence itself (as in Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence in general). The image Benjamin gives of this ‘phenomenon’ is located in the natural rather than the artificial world: specifically, when contemplating a line of hills or the shape of an overhanging branch ‘while resting on a summer afternoon’. To be sure, the hills or branch are presumably (to a greater or lesser degree) out of reach, so that the phenomenon is more precisely one of ‘distant closeness’. Moreover, the ‘unique’ time, place and reality (or otherwise) of the experience– ‘on a summer afternoon’ – are all located ‘out of reach’ by the indeterminacy of the image itself. Even the act of contemplation at its core – ‘while resting’ – is situated ‘out of reach’ in terms of its social function or value for the workaday world. However (by extension, so to speak) this phenomenon also applies to any object or person so contemplated, ‘however close’. Perhaps it’s what gives rise to what Hegel calls the ‘beautiful illusion’, ‘seeming’ or ‘semblance’ (die schöne Schein) of art – and of everything that ‘shines’ when viewed from the standpoint of aesthetic contemplation.

Indeed I’d argue that – in the realm of art at least – it’s always only a small step from contemplation to action, or from recreation to creation: in short, from the role of spectator or audience to that of artist or performer. To extend Benjamin’s image of aura in nature and ‘set it in motion’, so to speak: imagine raising one’s hand to trace the line of those hills or that branch with one’s finger. The extension from eye to hand in this imaginary gesture of tracing is already a ‘reproduction’ of the object by means of a mimetic act on the part of the subject’s own body, in a manner at once resembling drawing, writing and dance. The imaginary nature of the gesture also suggests that contemplation or creation (even in the mind’s eye) involves the production and reception of images, without or without the aid of technology. In other words (to deconstruct a central proposition of Benjamin’s essay): the process of reproduction is already at work in the phenomenon of aura itself. Proximity and distance, production and reception, object and image, presence and absence – all interpenetrate in the dialectic of aesthetic experience. Adorno writes in his Aesthetic Theory: ‘As Benjamin pointed out, the aura of art works is not only their here and now, but also their content insofar as it points beyond the work’s givenness’ (my italics). Adorno’s figurative use of the word ‘point’ – to indicate both the content of art and  (again by extension, so to speak) the writing of Benjamin himself – is itself an example of this gestural mimesis, which is prototypical of all art.

Notwithstanding the force of Benjamin’s critique of aura (or Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence), I’d maintain that – in theatre and performance at least – the quality of presence is ‘twice blessed’ (as Portia says of mercy in The Merchant) because ‘it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’ – in this case, performer and audience alike. This notion of a ‘double blessing’ in the context of performance crucially involves the co-presence of both parties (performer and audience) in a transaction that is not simply one-way, but involves a process of mutual ‘give-and-take’. Indeed, we might even call this mutual presence the 'medium' of performance, in the sense that paint or words are 'media' in the context of art or literature. 

Conversely (as Benjamin acknowledges) in film (and by implication in the recording industry) the subject (or object) is present only for the camera (and/or the microphone) rather than for the spectator or listener. The latter receives a mechanically reproduced visual or sonic image via a screen and/or speakers – large or small, depending on the size of the apparatus and the shared or private nature of the experience. Benjamin describes the destruction of aura by mechanical reproduction in positive terms as ‘prying an object from its shell’; but I wonder if it’s the really the object or merely the shell that’s left. In fact I’d argue that as image-producers and image-consumers we too risk becoming psychologically absent from our bodies, companions and surroundings. To a certain extent, this is the risk of all art, but it’s a condition vastly exacerbated by technology, especially in the digital age of hand-held devices – a veritable mirror-stage by which our entire species now seems to be captivated.

Zombies staggering down the streets, anyone?

Perhaps the co-presence of live performance can provide an antidote.

There’s no question that the availability of personal, interactive multimedia devices – from laptops to smart-phones and tablets – has challenged the primacy of cinema, TV and radio as platforms of content delivery, if not in terms of content itself. Am I being optimistic though in also detecting – by way of counterpoint perhaps – a renewed hunger for live performance as a form of collective experience? In contemporary music and theatre, since the end of the nineties I've detected an upsurge of renewed activity in venues and on stages large and small – perhaps all the more so, the larger or smaller the venue or stage (and even, correspondingly, the higher or lower the budget and ticket-price), whereas the middle-ground or 'small-to-medium sector' has struggled to maintain itself. To be more precise, I’ve noticed this upsurge less in conventional purpose-built concert halls or theatres than in multi-purpose, alternative, ‘found’ or pop-up venues, spaces and facilities – from stadiums, wineries and parks to warehouses, garages and lofts – and less in the form of conventional seasons or subscriptions than in short runs or one-off events. Among other things, this suggests a change in the economics of live performance (at either end of the scale) – and perhaps business generally (from the closure of specialist and corner shops to the rise of markets, laneways, stalls and booths). There's also been a change in the function, form and content of live shows, now that so much conventional entertainment (from TV shows to porn) is downloadable ubiquitously on demand. We want the shared experience of performance to be – to use Benjamin’s terms ‘against the grain’, so to speak – 'original, unique and authentic' in ways that electronic and digital media can’t provide. We’re hungry for unclassifiable, unpredictable and unrepeatable performances that mix technologies and traditions in real time and space; and above all, we want the performers themselves to be real as well.

For both artists and fans, the unpredictable nature of the pursuit is what makes it addictive. You never know when you’re going to score, whether the hit will be pure – or even a hit. I can count them on two hands, the shows and nights I’ll remember – from either side of the lights.

At the risk of sounding a bit theological myself, I’d even venture to say that the ‘cultic’ function of art is still an essential part of live performance, as fans of bands and DJs can readily attest. This ‘cultic’ function is evidenced as much in so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘traditional’ rites and festivals as it is in modern, contemporary or even ‘postmodern’ works, acts and events – however ‘advanced’ the technology deployed in order to produce, distribute or even consume them. In short: performing artists – in this respect not unlike shamans, priests, teachers and healers – know (in addition to the skills specific to their individual practice) how to channel, intensify and shape their own presence in interaction with that of their audience, congregation, students or patients, as the case may be. Rather than subsuming art in a reactionary way beneath the rubric of religion or magic (or for that matter beneath the ‘progressive’ banners of education or therapy), I would argue conversely that religion itself is an expression of the artistic – and indeed existential – urge to be (or make) present, an urge which can be (but is not necessarily) facilitated in communion with others.


The Twelve Days of Christmas traditionally end on January 6 (when I resumed writing this blog) with the Feast of the Epiphany (or Theophany), which celebrates the coming of the Wise Men bearing gifts to celebrate the birth of Christ.

In Greek, epi-phaneia means ‘striking appearance’ or ‘manifestation’, and refers among other things to the natural phenomenon of dawn – as well as the appearance or manifestation of a God (theo-phaneia).

Hard acts to follow, but we keep trying. 

Happy New Year.