Postcard from Perth 41
Playing and Reality
Fringe World Week 3: Yours The Face; 10,000; Venus in Fur; Mi Casa Es Su Casa; Concrete Heartbeat; Monroe and Associates; Fuck Decaf; Hex
Most of the shows I’ve seen this week have either been site-specific, immersive or even participatory in form; or in content have crossed the boundary between art and 'real life'.
There’s always a duality in theatre and performance between what’s real and what’s imaginary; presence and absence; the actual and the virtual; but this duality is heightened in the case of work that consciously superimposes two layers of reality within the story or the staging. This kind of work generates a special frisson for the audience that goes well beyond the usual suspension of disbelief; it can even open up a kind of ontological fissure that remains long after the event has passed. ‘What did I just see?’ we ask ourselves. ‘What just happened?’ Where was I?’ And perhaps even: ‘Where am I now? Who am I? And who are you?’ It’s a bit like regaining consciousness after fainting; or perhaps the effects of psychosis or drugs; but (for me anyway) it's a lot less terrifying, and can even be uplifting. A festival or fringe context lends itself to this kind of experience, especially if (like me) you see multiple shows per night. The city becomes strangely doubled or ‘not quite itself’ – and that’s even before having a few drinks.
Neither Yours the Face nor 10,000 – which I saw one after the other last Thursday at the Blue Room Studio – were immersive or participatory, but both played with dual layers of reality, performance and perception. Yours the Face is a solo show from Melbourne company Quiet Little Fox, written by Fleur Kilpatrick, co-directed by Robert Reid and Sarah Walker (who also designed the lighting and set) and performed by Roderick Cairns, with a sound design by Tom Pitts and dramaturgy by Raimondo Cortese. It’s an impressive team, and a slick and assured production. Roderick plays Emmy, a female international fashion model from the US, and her Australian male photographer Peter: they meet overseas, work together, have an affair and finally part ways. Roddy’s performance is fluid and seamless, his mellifluous voice and angular body adapting themselves effortlessly as he switches back and forth between roles; and the same can be said of Fleur’s script, an alternating present-tense monologue that evidently draws on her own experience as a model as well as her considerable skills as a wordsmith. Walker is also a professional photographer, and her design frames the action simply but effectively with an array of lights and reflectors that pop and flash to mark narrative transitions and sculpt the performer’s body as more and more of it is progressively revealed. The most interesting moment for me theatrically came when he removed his top, pulled down his pants halfway and sat on a chair with his back to us, in a brief tableau that made me think of Tiresias, the sage who knew what it meant to be both male and female.
Otherwise I have to confess I found the play elegant but a little undramatic. It reminded me of a film like Lost in Translation: two strangers crossing paths and then parting ways in a shimmering transient world. Yours the Face is a genre-piece consisting of figures in a landscape: like a painting or photograph whose narrative has been put into words. In cinema or literature this kind of story can hold my attention because dialogue, conflict and even character are relatively unimportant (or even redundant) in comparison with visual or verbal texture. In a theatrical context however I needed more: the characters felt shallow, dialogue forced and conflict almost non-existent. This wouldn’t have mattered in a film or short story, if the cinematography or language were ravishing enough to compensate. In this case, I found the whole thing a pleasure to watch and listen to; but ultimately I didn’t care.
10,000 is a new play co-written and co-performed by Jess Messenger and Nick Maclaine, efficently directed by Hellie Turner and lit by Joe Lui, with sexy costumes and set by Tessa Darcey, appropriately cheesy sound design by The Men From Another Place (aka Steve McCall and Dave Richardson) and thrilling fight direction by Andy Fraser.
Edie and AJ are a couple with a child whose relationship is on the rocks. They check into a hotel room and embark on AJ’s favourite video game in an effort to liven things up. It’s AJ’s idea, and Edie is understandably dubious about the whole exercise; but as the game progresses both players lose control of the situation and their roles.
I’m not a game-player, but I found watching the actors’ bodies as they inhabited their digital avatars hugely enjoyable. I’m also not normally a fan of simulated fighting (or simulated sex) onstage; but here both fighting and simulation were crucial to the action (perhaps because they serve as a substitute for real fighting – if not real sex) and a joy to watch, especially up close and personal at The Blue Room Studio. Nick in particular has a gift for physical comedy; and the transformative effect of the action on Jess (and her character) was a delight to behold.
In the end of course the play predictably skewers the idea that virtual reality can in any sense restore the damage done to actual relationships in the real world (a damage done in part by the addiction to technology). As such, it’s a kind of cynical antidote to the ideology of the culture industry, as exemplified by the sentimentality of films like Avatar (or more recently Interstellar), which effectively abandon the real (and the planet) in the name of technological fantasy.
As a writer, Jess evidently has a fascination with popular culture and its shadow-side. I’m not familiar with the world of gaming, but her ironic postmodern feminist perspective on the fantasy and sci-fi action genre makes me think of Joss Whedon: in particular his use of generic self-consciousness, heightened language and comedy of manners.
If anything, perhaps the play suffers from being just a little too predictable: as the game escalates and accelerates from one level of difficulty to another, it’s pretty clear that things can only end one way (again and again and again). The fact that Edie and Ajay have a child gives a little more substance to proceedings; but I found myself wanting a little more narrative to flesh out their characters – and indeed the game itself. Mind you, perhaps that’s why I’m not a game-player (but see my review of Monroe and Associates below).
On Saturday afternoon I saw Black Swan’s contribution to this year’s Fringe: a production of Venus in Fur by American playwright David Ives, directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tate and starring Adam Booth and Felicity Mackay, with a set by Patrick Howe, costumes by Cullen-Tate, lighting by Joe Lui and sound by Brett Smith. It’s a young and talented team, slightly wasted on what I felt was a somewhat middle-aged and creaky work.
Thomas (Booth) is the director and writer of the play-within-the play, Venus in Fur, an adaptation of the nineteenth-century novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch (from whom masochism gets its name). Vanda (Mackay) is an actress who turns up late and unscheduled to audition for the role of Wanda (geddit?) and convinces Thomas to read opposite her. By the end of the play, she sexually tortures and humiliates him in apparent revenge for his professional humiliation and torture of her in some kind of meta-theatrical quid pro quo.
The whole thing is so preposterous that it’s hard to believe not only the action onstage, but the fact that the play was a sensation off and on Broadway some years ago, and was even recently adapted into a film by Polanski (reviewed in a previous Postcard from Perth on last year’s French Film Festival). The film at least is a deliciously shot and acted (if somewhat campy) addition to the genre of cinema-about-theatre, which dispenses entirely with the play’s New York setting. The Black Swan production on the other hand adhered scrupulously to the safety rails of the original setting and accents. This added yet another layer of artifice, which I felt diminished the play’s impact (and credibility) even further.
The actors both did their best and gave lively performances; the set intriguingly combined features of New York loft and Hapsburg Baroque interior; the costumes (contemporary and allegedly nineteenth-century Viennese) all looked (appropriately?) as if they’d emerged from the same dressing-up box; and lighting and sound dutifully described every emotional nuance for the audience. Yet I felt play and production both fell short of their subject and source.
Like the parallel works of de Sade a century earlier, Sacher-Masoch’s novel is a fascinating document of psychopathology and an important contribution to philosophy (at least according to certain philosophers), albeit of dubious literary value (although not as unreadable as Justine or The 100 Days of Sodom). The original Venus is a moving and in its own way radical confession which attempts to articulate sexual role-play and bondage as a psychological reality and even a form of political freedom. The play on the other hand is a rather tame bourgeois meta-theatrical pantomime: part Six Characters in Search of an Author and part Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If the novel disturbs, the play consoles: bad-guy middle-class male sexist director-playwright gets his comeuppance at the hands of good-girl working-class feminist actor who’s also (you guessed it!) an avatar of the goddess Venus herself.
At the contrived turning-point of the play, The Bacchae is unconvincingly harnessed to Sacher-Masoch: Thomas inexplicably swaps roles with Vanda, puts on a dog-collar, dresses as a woman and allows himself to be tied to a heating pipe with her stockings and whipped. The result is as ludicrous, anti-climactic, prudish, tasteless and sexist onstage as it was in Polanski’s film. Worst of all, it completely fails to be erotic or transgressive.
I’d prefer to see the same creative team do their own adaptation of Sacher-Masoch anytime. Now that would be a Black Swan Lab Fringe World production worth frocking up for!
After Venus I left the Cultural Centre and Northbridge behind and ventured across the railway line and through the dead heart of the Perth CBD. Eventually I crossed the vertiginous footbridge that soars over the freeway and found myself entering the leafy uphill stretch of Mount St that leads to King’s Park and the Riverview Hotel. It was a totally unfamiliar landscape for me, and this slightly eerie sense of adventure only increased as the night went on.
Mi Casa es su Casa is a site-specific promenade work inside the hotel, presented by STUT Dance. More precisely, it’s three works: ‘Imagio-Mio’ choreographed by STRUT director Paul Selwyn Norton and performed by Rachel Ogle and Timothy Ohl on the front terrace, out on the street and inside the vestibule of the hotel; ‘Suite Secret’, choreographed and performed by Gabrielle Nankivell in one of the hotel apartments; and ‘Untitled’, choreographed by Anthony Hamilton and performed by Lucas Marie and Nicole Ward in and around the carpark at the rear of the building.
The hotel itself is (like all hotels) a weird place. The front bar, foyer and apartment that provide the settings for the first two works all have a dark, 90s faux-chic glamour that contrasts strikingly with the somewhat down-at-heel suburban motel feel of the carpark and the outdoor stairways, landings, balconies and rooms that surround it. In short: I felt I’d entered a schizoid world of glamorous façade and seedy underside that reminded me of the films of David Lynch or the staged photographs of Gregory Crewdson.
Aside from the choreographic use of interior and exterior architecture, the most exciting aspect of the night was negotiating one’s own role as an audience-participant. This became more interesting as we crowded into the lounge-room of the apartment with Gabrielle, and then followed her through the extremely strange layout of the suite: through the sliding glass doors, past the bathroom and into the bedroom. The real pay-off though came in the carpark, as we perched on the stairs, landings and balconies, watching the antics of the dancers below and sharing the experience with random curious onlookers from the hotel rooms.
Most surreal of all was the experience I had on leaving the carpark at the end of the show. As I emerged from the hotel driveway, through the glass wall of the terrace bar I caught sight of a second audience watching what took me a moment to realise was the first section of the show repeating itself all over again. Of course I knew there were three sessions a night, but the unexpected encounter was nevertheless nothing short of uncanny. It was something akin to déjà vu, but with an additional sense of depersonalisation: I almost expected to see myself in the crowd through the glass.
I watched for a while, until performers and audience disappeared inside the foyer. Then I went back to the bar and had a couple of stiff drinks with a fellow audience-member and friend, who seemed similarly affected by the experience. This uncanny feeling continued as I walked back down the street, across the footbridge over the freeway, and back to the station to catch the train home.
Like the best location theatre, the whole of Mi Casa es Su Casa is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. As the song says: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
On Tuesday night I was back in Northbridge for Concrete Heartbeat at PICA. This is a touring show created and performed by Sydney artist Mark Haslam. It’s a kind of verbal, sonic and scenic cityscape ostensibly inspired by the View-Master 3-D reels (and corresponding stereoscopic viewers) that were popular from the late thirties. In essence: Haslam stands behind a microphone and delivers a series of verbal portraits of anonymous types (‘The Nurse’, ‘The Cleaner’, ‘The Tourist’, ‘The Child’) at various hours of the 24-cycle in an equally anonymous city that could be Sydney, London or any other metropolis. Behind him still and moving images by Tania Lambert and Melvin Montalban are projected across the walls and onto variously stacked and arranged piles of crates; between the stories, Haslam rearranges the crates in new shapes to a pulsing soundtrack by Toby Paramore (paranym).
It’s an engaging hour, visually and sonically; Haslam isn’t a natural performer, but he has an endearingly anxious oddness onstage that keeps you pinned; and the stories while little more than sketches have a certain whimsical beat-poetry that’s easy on the ear. I didn’t feel he offered any great insights into the nature of city life; but I was intrigued by him and his perspective nonetheless, especially during one wordless sketch which saw him sitting opposite a single stack of crates onto which the image of a busker was projected eating a burger and staring into space. It was a rare moment of stillness and silence that allowed us in rather than reaching out to us. Less is more.
On Wednesday night I saw three shows, beginning with Monroe and Associates from the prolific imagination of Tim Watts. This is the first draft of a new show by Tim, and like all his work it’s a technically complex, aesthetically charming and uniquely enjoyable experience that beneath the fun and games has I think a serious moral purpose.
Monroe combines a one-on-one, participatory format with an open-ended narrative content – in other words, it’s a live game for two players, one of whom holds most of the cards. It’s also location-specific and immersive: it takes place in a caravan.
The formal twist is that you’re initially isolated, or at least one stage removed, from Tim himself, who plays multiple roles, and communicates mostly via an old-fashioned telephone. The narrative twist is that you don’t initially know who you are, except that you’ve suffering from amnesia, and have to reconstruct what’s happened, and to some extent choose your own adventure, based on clues. It’s a garden of forking paths that leads you into miniature world of corruption that’s part film noir and part comic cartoon (in fact it’s related to the imaginary world that was the setting for Tim’s previous large-scale live-game work, Pollyanna).
It would be wrong to give too much away, but the beauty of this work for me lies in the element of choice: not just embedded in the form, but explored as a central theme. There was a pivotal moment when I realised not just what had happened, but that it didn't determine what happened next. More than that: I realised that a human being is not just a physical body, the sum of their past actions, or even their memories, but has a moral identity. Monroe and Associates is great fun, but I walked out of that caravan with a sense of self I didn’t know I had before. Although there's no explicit use of animation employed in this show (unlike much of Tim's work), there's a sense in which giving things a soul lies at its heart. As the great child-psychologist Winnicott argued: that's the essence of playing and reality.
My next location theatre piece was a couple of blocks away: Fuck Decaf by The Cutting Room Floor. This is a remount of a show that played at Mary St Bakery to great acclaim last year: this time it took place at Frisk Small Bar in Francis St.
Written by Tyler Jacob Jones and directed by Scott Corbett with dramaturgy by Zoe Hollyoak, Fuck Decaf is about two female friends (played by Anne Marie Biagoni and Amanda Watson) who meet at a café, drink coffee, flirt with the waiter and talk about their love-lives. Time-jumps are measured by the waiter ringing a bell: things get more frenetic, more coffee gets drunk, more boyfriends float under the bridge.
I really struggled with this show. Like the company’s I Can Breathe Underwater (reviewed in last week’s Postcard from Perth Fringe World) I found the performances relentlessly loud and over the top, the writing two-dimensional and the characters self-absorbed. Worse: I couldn’t get over the fact that they talked about nothing other than men, and seemed dependent on them for conversation, meaning and purpose.
Was this post-feminism or pre-feminism? Blinding gender-satire or blind sexist stereotyping? I couldn’t say. One season of Sex in the City was enough for me; but at least that was witty, and Samantha at least was sexually empowered. This felt more like watching the worst of British TV farce.
To be fair: the rest of the audience seemed to find it hilarious. I obviously didn’t get it. The use of location and hurling of stage-coffee were presumably meant to be subversive, but to me it all felt painfully unreal.
Last show of the night, and one of the highlights of my Fringe so far, was Hex at PICA, which I only saw at the last minute, thanks to a friend’s recommendation.
At last: a Fringe show that’s truly subversive, even transgressive, in content and form; dazzlingly skilled; and full of passionate intensity. And interestingly, the only show I’ve seen this week that doesn’t mess around with site-specific, immersive, participatory form or meta-theatrical content – unless you include vogue-balls and masquerade as meta-theatre, which they undoubtedly are.
James Welsby’s dance work for two men and one woman about HIV, its history and impact from the perspective of his generation - the generation that grew up in the 90s, after the previous generation’s struggle for liberation, decimation from the pandemic, and the backlash that followed – is terrifying, witty, beautiful, moving, sexy, angry and exhilarating. It’s thrilling to see a contemporary dance work using a sophisticated movement language (including a severe and almost hieratic use of vogue moves and gestures) and eschewing spoken language completely – thus avoiding the reduction of meaning that so often ensues when dance and theatre are put together.
Even the more mimetic sequences – such as the harrowing use of shivering that recalled the early symptoms of infection, the inspired and obscene use of pink rubber gloves that simultaneously suggested sex, illness and medicine, or the violent stamping polka that recalled the protests and riots like Stonewall which became the forgotten origins of Gay Pride marches today – all formed part of an abstract tapestry that allowed us to witness, interpret and make our own connections without being told. The soundtrack was also thrilling: a remix of disco, pop, dance and nostalgia tracks, punctuated by mesmerising silences or warped into ambiences of horror. Most powerful of all for me was the image of the dancers crouching close-up and singing into each other’s mouths: a multivalent image of passion, infection, love and grieving.
Just when you thought Fringe was all about fun and games, along comes the dance party to end all dance parties – but still, finally, a defiant gesture of celebration.
Humph’s Postcards from Fringe World continue next week.