Sunday, 19 October 2014

Postcard from Perth 34


Animated Landscapes

Moominpappa at Sea, Farm, Falling Through Clouds


Following on from my previous Postcard about Letters Home, King Hit and the theatre of identity, the other shows I’ve seen in Perth recently all involved puppets. The simplest and for me most successful was Spare Parts associate director Michael Barlow’s delightful adaptation of the great Finnish children’s author Tove Jansson’s classic Moominpappa at Sea. The show toured regionally earlier this year, but I saw it at the WA Museum as part of the Awesome Festival for Bright Young Things, which took over various Perth Cultural Centre venues over the last ten days.



I read and re-read the Moomin books obsessively as a child, so I was worried that I might feel quite protective about the material. In the best Scandinavian tradition, Jansson’s creatures inhabit a twilight world fractured by uncertainty. Adapting Moominpappa at Sea in particular as a puppet show seemed like jumping in at the deep end. It’s a melancholy, troubled, Symbolist late work that spoke to me deeply when I was a teenager. I remember being stirred by the ambiguous sexuality of Moomintroll’s encounters with the sea-horses; the incipient dementia of Moominmamma’s progressive disappearance into her wall-painting; Moominpappa’s neurotic mid-life crisis of impotence and failure attempting to ‘man’ his lighthouse; the clinical depression embodied by the frozen loneliness of the Groke; Little My’s psychotic feelings of rage and abandonment; and underlying everything, the uncontrollable forces of inner life inhabiting the island and the sea. Hardly the stuff of children’s literature or theatre, you might think – or perhaps on the contrary, precisely the stuff of children’s literature and theatre.

In the event, Michael’s Barlow’s adaptation captures Jansson’s subtle, whimsical spirit perfectly. It’s a virtually a solo show (albeit with a crucial double-role for stage manager Bruno Michel) which Michael now also performs (he originally directed Bec Bradley in the role for the regional tour). I’ve long admired Michael as a master puppeteer with a uniquely engaging stage-presence. Here he finds the perfect balance between endowing the simple puppets and minimalist paper set (both designed by Leon Hendroff) with life while also ‘animating himself’, so to speak, through his voice, face and body as he takes on the various characters.

The only false note for me was the use of narration, which I felt intermittently broke the spell. As with the previous Spare Parts show I wrote about earlier this year, Hatchiko, I wanted the story to ‘tell itself’ through action, image and minimal dialogue, allowing the performer to absorb himself in the puppets, and us to absorb ourselves in watching and overhearing them without having everything explained to us. Once again, I wonder if it’s a question of ‘designating’ the work of the company too much in terms of its audience – this time in term of preconceived notions about children and their capacity to attend, imagine and follow visual storytelling. I also wondered if Michael felt that he needed to avoid or dispel some of the book’s darkness and ambiguity for the same reason; but children can cope with darkness and ambiguity; just ask Melanie Klein.

This is a story about a family that’s externally functional, harmonious and loving but internally being pulled apart by centrifugal forces. The puppets are ideal representatives for the characters’ secret selves, their inner restlessness: Moominpappa’s desire for adventure, Moominmamma’s desire to escape, Moomintroll’s sexuality, Little My’s rage. Jansson’s genius was to recognise that these feelings and forces are a normal part of everyone, in every family. She embraced them by creating a unique bestiary of creatures who became emblems of our own secrets selves. It’s the unspoken aspect of this inner world that makes it ideal material for puppetry: a world that children instinctively understand because they live it intensely themselves and sense it in the adults around them. Puppetry makes this unspoken world of hidden emotions visible and tangible. As such, they can be discreetly acknowledged and shared.

*



Back at their home-base in Fremantle, Spare Parts were also presenting Farm, an ambitious epic work of visual theatre derived from research and development residencies in the Wheatbelt town of Merredin. Once again, I can’t review this show altogether impartially as I played a role in it, albeit only in voiceover, and was also employed by the company earlier this year on a visit to Merredin to set up a community installation for the Agricultural Show (which I wrote about in an earlier Postcard). However I had nothing to do with the script development and wasn’t involved in rehearsals, my work being confined to a day at the Show and an afternoon in a recording studio, so my experience of the production is largely as an audience member.

Farm has been written by Perth independent theatre artist Ian Sinclair and directed by Spare Parts artistic director Philip Mitchell, with a spectacular set by Matt McVegh (featuring large wheeled light-boxes on the surface of which images are traced by the actors and projected on a screen overhead) and equally spectacular lighting by Graham Walne, stirring music by company regular Lee Buddle, and energetic performances by Chloe Flockhart, Bec Bradley, St John Cowcher and dancer Ruth Battle (Chloe and Bec were also involved as co-devisors on the development of the show).

Ian’s script is poetic and allusive yet down-to-earth. It tells the story of a family farm from the perspective of a young girl, her grandfather, and her mother and father – along with a kind of native earth-spirit who also appears as a (non-native) sheep and later a kangaroo. Narration as such is replaced by the device of short-wave radio conversations between the young girl and her grandfather (a pre-recorded voiceover by yours truly); in fact these are the only two characters who speak. Notwithstanding this self-imposed limitation, I found the use of language in the script richly suggestive. However the story itself seemed a little schematic and even hazy at times.

The lack of narrative clarity or momentum was accentuated by occasionally cumbersome staging with the actors wheeling the light-boxes around into new configurations to designate literal or psychological shifts or scene changes. I also found the device of the dancer-spirit unclear (if elegantly realized by Ruth Battle), especially if intended as a substitute for any direct acknowledgment of the region’s Aboriginal inhabitants (apparently terra nullius except for the odd kangaroo or native spirit).

As with the treatment of sporting violence in King Hit reviewed previously, the representation of ‘the land’ and its hardships in Farm did not altogether escape a certain endemic Australian sentimentality (we do this with war as well, as current WW1 commemorations testify). Abstracted from historical or geographical specificity, ‘the land’ becomes (and remains) an alien, featureless and hostile zone inhabited by incomprehensible forces (a seemingly unchanging climate punctuated by apparently random dust-storms and bushfires) rather than the site where specific cultural practices (land-clearing, irrigation, patriarchy, colonialism, indiscriminately introduced animals and crops) play themselves out with devastating psychological, social and ecological consequences. After a distressing opening sequence of gung-ho tree-chopping, script and staging didn’t really follow through on this, perhaps out of deference to the good denizens of Merredin. The performers however endowed their characters and situation with a vivid particularity that spoke volumes despite the lack of dialogue or detail.

I think this lack of detail detracted from Farm in a way it didn’t from Mooninpappa at Sea because the former attempted to depict a realistic world (albeit using a lyrical script) whereas the latter is psychological and symbolic. The Farm family also don’t talk to each other (with the exception of the daughter and grandfather, whose relationship is the heart of the work) which makes them inherently less dramatic than the Moomin family, who communicate volubly (if ineffectually, after the manner of Chekhov) both with each other and the landscape. Ironically, this made the human characters somewhat two-dimensional in comparison.

For a puppet show, there was also a notable lack of puppets. Instead, it was as if the actors almost become highly animated puppets themselves. Perhaps that says something about how we experience living on the land, or even in this country: animated by alien forces, but spiritually dead inside. In the final analysis, I found Farm a spectacular, melancholy but ultimately dry and abstract work about failed interaction between people and landscape, which made it difficult to sustain itself dramatically. Maybe more puppets would have helped.

*



The last show under review is Falling Through Clouds at PICA. Perth indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt’s second show this year (following Elephents at The Blue Room, reviewed in June) is actually a devised work by four very talented members of the company. Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs (who all previously collaborated on It’s Dark Outside and Alvin Sputnik) are here joined by Adriane Daff, who’s currently going from strength to strength as an actor.

Like its precursors, Falling Through Clouds is a low-fi, multimedia, live and digital animation-filled work of visual theatre that seems to be driven by the creative inspiration of Tim in particular, although no-one is officially designated as the writer or director of the show. The story is told almost entirely using images, including puppetry, masks and the extensive use of live-cam projection. The scant dialogue is inconsequential and I’m guessing largely improvised in origin; skeletal narrative information mostly takes the form of titles projected on screens.

In a world where birds have (mysteriously) become extinct, Mary is a scientist employed to genetically re-engineer them and raise them to fly again. Somewhat arbitrarily she’s given a year to achieve this – failing which (again somewhat arbitrarily) her final duty before being dismissed from her job is to exterminate her hapless creations. At night she dreams of flight herself, and also (more disturbingly) of being haunted by her own double (these dreams are thrillingly staged).

This is theatre reborn from the ashes of cinema – or perhaps more specifically, live animation reborn from the ashes of its cinematic counterpart (which has arguably fuelled the fortunes of Hollywood for the last forty years from the puppet-shark in Jaws to the latest iteration of Madagascar). Words yield to pictures, actors to puppets, adults and children alike to child-adults, and human beings to animals with the souls of people. In the relative absence of language, music plays a vital role in communicating meaning – here provided in the form of a soaring score by theatre, film and TV composer Ash Gibson Greig.

Some gaps in the plot can be easily filled. The extinction of birds is presumably a consequence of human-induced loss of biodiversity (though other species go unmentioned). The precise nature of the biotech company who employ Mary is a little more obscure; her fellow employees are played for laughs, but there’s an intimation of something more Kafkaesque at work which is never fully developed. As a result the scenario feels a little sketchy, and it’s hard to feel that there’s much at stake, despite the best efforts of the soundtrack and cast.

In fact I experienced this show less as a story than as a sequence of images. As such, I found the dreams more powerful than their secondary elaboration as plot. Underlying the contemporary sociological theme of technology (digital and biotech) as ‘second nature’ are universal psychological phenomena such as the fear of the double or the desire to fly. According to Freud, the double or doppelgänger is a classic instance of what he calls ‘the uncanny’ or unheimlich – literally, the un-familiar that is in fact a split-off version of the self – while dreams of flight are (of course) sexual in origin. Mary’s masked double is thus a murderous sleepwalker who embodies her own projected sense of guilt; while exhilarating representations of flying (using projection and physical theatre) express the fulfilment of physical longing in a world that seems otherwise devoid of sex, reproductive or otherwise. Somehow the cute birds and crazy scientists of the surface plot didn’t quite match the power of these subterranean archetypes. In this regard Falling Through Clouds falls somewhere between Moominpappa at Sea and Farm in terms of the use of animation to represent internal as opposed to external worlds.

On a sliding scale of device-driven complexity though it’s a giant step beyond the elegant simplicity of Mooninpappa or even the stage-business clutter of Farm. In fact there’s so much going on technically and imaginatively here that sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. Perhaps this over-complexity and lack of unifying perspective can be attributed to the absence of a director or writer. The images and sequences themselves are astonishing, clever, exhilarating, beautiful, funny and poignant, but there’s something missing: a guiding thread, perhaps. The narrative lacks shape, and after a while (like so many Hollywood movies, animated and otherwise) I started to feel like I was being pounded by one damn thing after another.

Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the subject-matter in the theatrical form: the impact of technology on nature, the body and the psyche; and the increasingly media-saturated, disorientating, dreamlike, solipsistic nature of contemporary existence. In the end though, I found Falling Through Clouds a confusing work, and on reflection a divided one. In short, I felt as if there were two shows here: a goofy sci-fi parable (which recalls the apocalyptic framework of Alvin Sputnik) and a darker symbolic fairy-tale about doubles and flight (which perhaps has more in common with It’s Dark Outside). The two didn’t quite cohere, and as a result I was sometimes unsure of what I was meant to be watching or feeling.

This is perhaps harsh criticism of a work that’s still hugely entertaining and displays dazzling inventiveness and skill. It’s dramatically and emotionally anchored by a touching central performance from Adriane – as was the case with Chloe in Farm – with little help from the script in terms of dialogue or backstory. Tim, Arielle and Chris provide energetic support, but again, they have little to go on textually and one feels their talents are slightly wasted on such thin material. Perhaps such deficiencies of plot and character didn’t matter in Alvin or It’s Dark because the central character in the former was a puppet, and in the latter was represented using mask. As such, we were already in the realm of archetypes and dreams. This is properly the realm of puppetry and animation, which explains their appeal as storytelling devices for children, who move freely between this nocturnal world and the diurnal one of waking life. The characters and setting of Moominpappa at Sea also belong to this dream-world, unlike the externalized, all-too-human people and places that are the raw material for Farm. In comparison, Falling Through Clouds seems uncertain where it wants to land.    

The work of this company – and Tim in particular – is at an exciting crossroads. Imaginatively and in terms of craft, they (and he) can seemingly do anything: in particular their combined use of digital and live animation, projection, puppetry, mask and visual theatre is streets ahead of the pack – Lepage comes to mind as the obvious precursor – and there’s a home-made, DIY, indie aesthetic which is uniquely their own (though it owes a lot to the Perth vibe). Above all, I’m a huge fan of their commitment to ensemble-based work.

In terms of writing, direction and dramaturgy, though, there’s a sense that they’re turning in circles. Perhaps this is an inevitable stage for a young company in a small town, and a perennial risk with group-devised work. Based on my own experiences in ensemble theatre, my feeling is that stronger direction and writing is needed, either from inside or outside the group.




Sunday, 12 October 2014

Postcard from Perth 33




Identity Theatre and the Politics of Place

Joe Lui’s Letters Home and Yirra Yaakin’s King Hit


It’s glorious spring weather in Perth and the wildflowers are in full bloom. It’s been a busy time for theatre too, and once again I’m back in rehearsals, so I’ve had to ration my outings in the interests of sanity (and the odd evening at home).

The last couple of weeks have almost felt like a mini-festival in and around the Cultural Centre. There’ve been two works of home-grown Aboriginal theatre: Yirra Yaakin’s King Hit staged under a marquee in the State Theatre Centre courtyard, and Big Hart’s Roebourne community extravaganza Hipbone Sticking Out in the Heath Ledger (and on its way to the Melbourne Festival). Meanwhile the Blue Room Season Two is in full swing, with local indie theatre legend Joe Lui’s solo show Letters Home finishing last week and two new theatre and dance-theatre shows opening this week; indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt have premiered their new multimedia show Falling Through Clouds at PICA; and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre have had simultaneous seasons of two new shows, with Farm at their home base in Fremantle for the school holidays (after an out-of-town season in Merredin where it was researched and developed) and Moominpappa at Sea at the WA Museum (also after a regional tour) as part of Awesome, the International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things, which took over various Cultural Centre venues last week. And finally two local contemporary dance works have been made and/or shown in close succession at the Studio Underground: Aimee Smith’s Borderline, and Danielle Micich’s new dance-theatre work Overexposed (also featuring yours truly and currently in rehearsals).

All in all, it’s enough to do any city (or reviewer) big or small anywhere proud. Back from a week’s break down south in Denmark enjoying the weather and wildflowers, I embarked on rehearsals the week before last and managed to take in Letters Home, King Hit, Mooninpappa at Sea, Farm and Falling Through Clouds. I’m going to attempt to summarize my experiences in two separate Postcards: this one focussing on Letters Home and King Hit – both of which deal in very different ways with issues of family and cultural identity – and the following one on the two Spare Parts shows and Falling Through Clouds, which all explored new territory in terms of puppetry and other forms of animation.

*

I had a hand in Letters Home as a dramaturg/mentor, so I can’t claim to review it with any degree of critical objectivity; but I will say that Joe is a remarkable multi-skilled artist and that for me this was perhaps at once his most courageous and accessible show to date. Although not usually seen an actor, this time he took the stage himself (as well as writing, directing and composing music/designing sound as usual, while handballing lighting design to Chris Donnelly) in order to perform a letter to his parents back in Singapore (having left as a student and remained in exile in order to avoid national service).

Joe has great charm as a natural performer, which is perhaps not surprising given the revelation that he had a previous life as a child-star in Singapore on a TV show aptly named ‘Kids in Power’ (footage of which was shown at the end); and the night I finally saw the show (after watching a few rehearsals early in the process) he had the audience eating out of his hand. Beyond the fun and games, though, there was an underlying sense of ritual to proceedings, as he alternately addressed us and his absent parents while preparing a traditional Chinese meal for them at a table set with two empty chairs. The immersive set by Cherish Marrington featured an endearing bird’s nest of Joe’s personal belongings – surmounted by a video screen discreetly showing relevant content (designed by Mia Holton) – with the stage and auditorium enclosed by wall-to-wall see-through plastic drapes.

Highest praise from me though goes to the script, which is a playful, witty, honest and moving meditation on culture, politics, art, science, sex, authoritarianism and filiation. Joe walks a fine line between mockery and pathos (for his parents and himself), and there are some toe-curling digs at ‘traditional’ Chinese culture and the impact of his parents’ stereotypical obsession with money and success at the expense of personal or emotional fulfilment. We’ve all been there, if perhaps not quite with the same wrenching twist of cultural separation and political exile. Most striking for me were the evocations of place in the quest for ‘home’: the skyscrapers and smog of Singapore, the clear starry skies of Perth, and The Blue Room Studio itself as the place where Joe has ‘remade’ himself through his work.

I mentioned at the outset the show’s accessibility as well as its courage, in comparison with Joe’s previous work. On reflection I think perhaps it’s the content that’s challenging rather than the form – or perhaps rather that it’s a more challenging exercise for Joe than it is for us. I wonder for example what it would be like to deconstruct culture and identity further by having Joe direct someone else as himself; perhaps someone who isn’t Chinese. There’s something strangely reinforcing about the exercise as it stands.

In any case, and in any form, I hope this show has a long life and gets to travel – albeit probably not to Singapore.

*

Reviewing King Hit presents a different set of challenges. I saw it on the last night, and its combined sense of event, audience, place and setting carried all before them. India Mehta’s tent-design in particular was a knockout, and the crowd was buzzing even before we entered (in my case, a lucky last-minute substitution landing me with a ringside seat in the middle of the front row, surrounded by family mob).

Co-written by Geoffrey Narkle and former Yirra Yaakin Artistic Director David Milroy (who directed the original production in 1997), the play tells the first half of Narkle’s life story: growing up on an Aboriginal reserve outside the Wheatbelt town of Narrogin south-west of Perth, being removed from his parents and raised on a Catholic mission in the aptly named town of Wandering, escaping and drifting through the perils of Northbridge, and joining a tent boxing troupe where he acquired the moniker of ‘The Barker Bulldog’, before finally being reunited with his mother. It’s a powerful story, and this production is directed with great flair by the company’s current director Kyle J. Morrison (who originally played the role of Geoffrey), with effective rough-theatre set and costumes by Mehta and lighting by Jenny Villa, vibrant guitar music by Clint Bracknell, fights elegantly directed by Andy Fraser, and an energetic cast of four led by Clarence Ryan with Maitland Schnaars, Karla Hart and Benj D’Addario playing multiple roles. The most moving aspect of the show dealt with the devastating long-term effects of being forcibly separated from their parents for a whole generation of children on their self-esteem and sense of identity, and in this regard the play pulled no punches: you can’t go home again.

In this context, to probe the limits of the script, staging or performances would be churlish (although the natural energy and charm of Clarence Ryan in the central role won me over completely) in the face of what was undeniably a great night out that evidently hit the spot for most of the audience. Nevertheless I couldn’t help wondering if something was missing, in a play ostensibly about the paradox of seeking self-respect on the tent-boxing circuit – namely, a real sense the ugliness and brutality of boxing, especially as a form of racially charged entertainment. As a nation, we tend to sentimentalize violence (especially in sport), and I’m not sure that its all-too-literal and even slightly clownish representation here altogether avoided this tendency. To be sure, the fights were skilfully staged and executed but they lacked the real horror that perhaps a more indirect or symbolic representation might bring. Perhaps the most disturbing spectacle was watching an audience of predominantly well-heeled white middle-class theatre patrons (plus a generous invite-list of company extended family) in the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre cheering and laughing (or relieving themselves of guilt) while watching Aboriginal people simulating punch-ups for our amusement.

As with Letters Home, I found myself thinking about the politics of place and its importance for identity (as signified by the Aboriginal term ‘country’). It seems to me that we’re all too ready to identify and differentiate ourselves and others in terms of culture, language, religion, tribe, family or skin; but whoever we are, we all live and work somewhere which profoundly shapes us and what we do. Unlike those other terms, place is no respecter of persons – it doesn’t discriminate between people in the way that people themselves do. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about nationality here; a nation is not a place, in the way that a continent or island, a forest or desert, a stretch of coast or river, a region, or even a city or town is. Nor am I necessarily talking about birthplace as opposed to a place you adopt, or that adopts you, as your home (in Joe Lui’s case, for example, Perth and The Blue Room Studio); although there’s no question that where you grow up, or spend a significant period of your life, deeply informs who you are. Belonging is a process that can’t be measured; it occurs internally.

The notion of place is also significant for theatre as an activity that always happens somewhere (a designated venue or site). In this regard, some spaces are more discriminatory than others (much like nations in this regard). In the case of King Hit, for instance, the tent provided a sense of inclusiveness that overcame some of the limitations of the courtyard while counteracting the social exclusiveness of the State Theatre Centre itself. I wondered what kind of impact a show like this might have in a tent at the Perth Royal Show (which coincidentally has also been on in Nedlands), or on a footy oval in Narrogin (perhaps during the annual Agricultural Fair) – or even at the ruined site of the former Wandering Mission. In each case, a different relationship between event and location would lead to a different social configuration between the performers and the audience. This isn’t a criticism of the work or its importance; but I wonder if there isn’t also a place for taking us (artists and audiences) a little further out of our comfort zones.

Beyond the politics of place or the aesthetics of violence and its representation, this raises broader questions for me about the relationship between theatre companies and their audiences, especially when those companies have an explicitly or implicitly designated cultural identity. To be sure, these questions apply no less to other ‘niche’ companies – whether art-form-designated (like Spare Parts Puppet Theatre) or audience-designated (like Barking Gecko as a company for young people) – than they do to culturally designated companies (like Yirra Yaakin). For that matter they also apply to ‘mainstage’ or ‘State’ theatre companies, which also implicitly ‘designate’ themselves, their audiences, productions and artists along class, demographic or aesthetic lines; it’s even arguably true for ‘indie’ or ‘fringe’ companies, artists and audiences. This isn’t to say that such companies shouldn’t exist or that we shouldn’t use such labels in order to brand them. It’s simply to suggest that we also need to look beyond the potential complacency that such feedback loops of mutual reinforcement risk settling into.

Since moving to Perth almost fourteen years ago, I’ve seen a lot of ‘Aboriginal theatre’ by various companies ‘telling Aboriginal stories’ (and even told by ‘Aboriginal artists’), but sometimes I’ve wondered what these phrases really mean. Much of this theatre has been about the past – emblematic life-stories, significant historical episodes – and most of it staged in white middle-class metropolitan venues (including the State Theatre Centre). Sometimes I chafe at the limits of designated ‘Aboriginal’ theatre and dance companies – and perhaps art centres, arts funding categories, prizes and awards. No doubt, they’ve all played – and continue to play – a vital role in giving Aboriginal people a voice and cultural representation; indeed their establishment is one of the signal achievements of the broader movement of multiculturalism since the early 1970s – a project like so many embarked on in that era that remains unfinished and is still continually contested. But beyond this I think there’s a bigger battle yet to be fought for non-culturally specific representation (and colour-blind casting) across our stages, screens and galleries. This involves a much more fundamental change in our ‘ways of seeing’ – perhaps for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.


We can pat ourselves on the back for not being racist, and even remove the term ‘race’ from our Constitution, but I think there’s still a danger in using terms like ‘culture’ to define ourselves in ways that are just as essentialist and potentially oppressive; this also applies to notions of language, tribe, religion, family or skin. To be sure, all these notions designate aspects of identity, whether fated, imposed or freely chosen; but they remain relative, contested and ultimately floating. The transformative power of theatre as a symbolic form of representation is that like no other art-form it can release us from the limits of our identities. Perhaps it’s time to move beyond identity-politics and identity-theatre by looking at the politics and performance of identity itself. In the act of symbolic exchange between performers and audience, the lineaments of a new kind of community can be traced, and perhaps even made real.