Monday, 28 September 2015



Postcard from Perth 45



PTC in crisis; Black Swan, Extinction; Yirra Yaakin, The Fever and The Fret; Spare Parts, Fox 


In the last few days I’ve seen new productions by three of Perth’s surviving major and small-to-medium theatre companies. I say ‘surviving’ because Perth Theatre Company has recently lost both its artistic director and executive producer, shortly after announcing the cancellation of its two remaining shows this year precipitated by the loss of a major sponsor as well as a box-office shortfall for its preceding shows.

The crisis at PTC is in part due to the end of the mining investment boom, which has directly affected corporate support to the arts (especially by mining companies) as well as indirectly affected consumer spending (and thus audiences) in WA more than anywhere else in the country. However, it also reflects a deeper crisis in terms of the future of theatre companies across the country, and indeed internationally.

This crisis is at once economic, social, cultural and technological. How can a heavily subsidized industry like theatre survive in an era of austerity? How can the artistic identity of particular theatre companies surivive in an era of increasingly generic corporate branding and marketing? How can the profoundly localized nature of theatre companies, venues, artists and audiences survive in an era of globalisation? And how can theatre as a medium of collective presence survive in an era of increasing technological mediation and social atomisation (i.e. watching flatscreens and laptops at home)?

PTC already had its back against the wall when I moved to Perth fifteen years ago. In those days it was the personal fiefdom of founding artistic director Alan Beecher, as opposed to Black Swan’s Andrew Ross; the former’s undeniable gifts as a director (especially in small-scale contemporary work) were arguably overshadowed by the latter’s vision for a distinctively Western Australian (and particularly Aboriginal) theatre. This sense of rivalry became more pronounced after Black Swan moved into residence at the new State Theatre Centre, became the official State Theatre Company and secured permanent funding status as a Major Performing Arts Company with the Australia Council, while PTC lost its former home venue with the demolition of the Perth Playhouse, was relegated to the bowels of the State Theatre in the Studio Underground and became increasingly starved of both national and state funding.

Over the last seven years, despite Mel Cantwell’s considerable talent and vision as a director, PTC has struggled to find or communicate a consistent artistic identity. Broadly speaking, it has pitched itself as a more contemporary alternative to Black Swan; but it has essentially lacked the resources (in terms of funding and venue) to consolidate this, or to connect its grassroots base of Perth independent theatre artists (from which Mel herself emerged) with a more mainstream audience constituency. In short: Perth doesn’t have the cultural demographics of Sydney or Melbourne, and so it’s a lot harder (though equally vital) to sustain a Belvoir, Griffin or Malthouse here. Ironically, PTC somehow managed to put together an impressive looking program this year featuring no less than seven shows, and comprising a mix of curated independent work, Mel’s own work as a playwright, devisor and director, and more mainstream fare (a revival of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, starring Australian Hollywood star Jai Courtney). Unfortunately reviews and audiences for the former categories of work weren’t as strong as might have been hoped (I was overseas so didn’t see any of them), and it’s the Steinbeck that’s now been cancelled (apparently because it was tied to the corporate sponsorship that has now fallen through), along with another new work by local independent artist James Berlyn.

All eyes are now on the future and indeed the survival of the company. Here’s hoping that the funding bodies and the company’s board in their collective wisdom find a way to keep it going. For my money, Perth desperately needs an alternative mainstage company, preferably one devoted to contemporary theatre and performance, and in whatever form or organisational structure works best – artistic director-led, ensemble-based, curatorial or some combination of all three. Watch this space.

*

Yirra Yaakin’s The Fever and the Fret, Black Swan’s Extinction and Spare Parts’ Fox are all stories about love and death as well as dealing with broader themes of social and ecological change. In fact all three work best on the personal level despite certain thematic and conceptual weaknesses, and I found all three emotionally moving works despite some reservations about their content and execution.

Nyul Nyul/Yawuru actor, writer and film director Jub Clarc’s first play The Fever and The Fret is a homage to her grandparents who raised her. In the first half of the play, Lizzie (Ebony McGuire) lives with Iggy (Kelton Pell) and Ruby (Irma Woods) in their family home in a mining town up north during the early years of the resources boom. Lizzie’s mother is absent, her whereabouts unknown; her father is scarcely mentioned. Iggy works for the local mining company but has had a privileged education, loves poetry and has aspirations for a better life, all of which he seeks to instill in his granddaugher, who goes to the local school. The company has made him an offer on the house so that they can expand the mine; and the chief conflict in the play is between him and Ruby, who wants to keep the family home. Iggy also drinks and bets on the horses, and there is more than a suggestion of the anger, bitterness and frustration and that underlies this. There is also a background of incipient conflict at school between Lizzie and her peers, who discriminate against her because of her family situation. All of this simmers away beneath a loving and mostly peaceful domestic life presented in short vignettes, although tensions gradually build to a climax, the fallout from which we never actually witness onstage. The second half of the play takes place some years later: Iggy now has dementia, Ruby is dead, and Lizzie is now her grandfather’s carer, living with him in the new house which he presumaby bought from the sale of the old one, and which is haunted by Ruby’s ghostly presence.

The overall tone of The Fever and the Fret is gentle, low-key and valedictory. This mood is set by the writing, and supported by Kyle Morrison’s sensitive direction, warm if slightly sentimental lighting and sound designs by Chloe Ogilvie and Joe Lui, and an impressive set by Matt McVeigh wedged into the natural corner-stage configuration of the Subiaco Theatre Centre, which effectively conveys both the characters’ sense of entrapment and their capacity to make do with the given circumstances. In the first half it represents the slightly chaotic living area of the family home – periodically invaded by cascades of red dust through the ceiling – and in the second half transforms into Iggy and Irma’s cramped kitchen.

All three performances have great inner strength, even though I felt the actors struggling at times with a lack of finesse in the writing, and perhaps some occasional uncertainty about pace and energy. Kelton Pell coped best with this, great actor that he is, and also had the most complex and fully realised character, which he instinctively underplayed. Irma Woods is also a fine actor whom I love watching onstage, but she had less to work with in terms of the writing, and had to carry the bulk of the play’s emotional charge. Ebony McGuire had the hardest task of all, playing both the teenage and adult versions of an inherently less developed character, but she lit up the stage with a natural and unflagging energy.

Structurally, I found the set-up in the second half of the play much more interesting than the first half, and wondered if it couldn’t in fact have framed the entire story, with hallucinatory trickles of dust letting flashbacks of the past into Iggy’s damaged mind, as for me he was the central consciousness of the play. Nevertheless, it was an affecting night at the theatre, and rapturously received by the audience when I caught it on the final performance of the season.

*

Black Swan’s Extinction is a new play by prolific Melbourne playwright Hannie Rayson. Her plays are in many ways Shavian dramas, comedies or dramatic comedies of ideas (depending on the mood the play), pitting characters against each other as the vehicles or spokespeople of social or moral forces or points of view. Behind this lies a peculiarly English-language understanding of Ibsen (facilitated by Shaw himself) which emphasises naturalism, domestic space and verbal dexterity, as opposed to the more deeply psychological and symbolic layers of landscape, character, speech and action that underlie Ibsen’s work.

This tendency in Australian theatre – which is also manifest in other popular playwrights like David Williamson or Joanna Murray-Smith (their respective differences notwithstanding) – points I believe not only to our still dominant (but perhaps increasingly residual) English-language cultural heritage, but also to a more profound internal division between what might be called our intellectual and our emotional selves, and to our collective alienation from any deep local-historical connection with indigenous myths, traditions and rituals (and by ‘indigenous’ I don’t necessarily mean Aboriginal). Ibsen after all was writing against a native folkloric background of trolls, vikings, pine forests, fjords and avalanches, a primordial realm which lies beneath even the most middle-class Scandinavian drawing rooms.  Where are the Australian playwrights who have sought to plumb similar depths – or perhaps span similar chasms across internal and external geographies? Patrick White and perhaps some of the early plays of Louis Nowra spring to mind; it’s also what excites in the work of an Australian theatremaker like Barrie Kosky, regardless of the cultural provenance of his raw material. In comparison, so much mainstream Australian theatre is like watching TV (and I mean the old-style, interior-of-a-studio-set-bound TV, which itself was a small-sceen copy of the dominant mode of theatre at the time). There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this – depending on the execution of course – but the limits of the form are encountered whenever larger emotions or themes are tackled.

In fact the most interesting and unexpected scene in Extinction occurs after interval, when we are suddenly (and disappointingly briefly) plunged into the forests of Cape Otway. It’s a great reveal – and very late-Ibsen – in terms of the journey of Bryan Woltjen’s excellent stage design, which otherwise frames the action inside cold, stark, artificial and impersonal interiors, which shift subtly from vet clinic to high-rise apartment to university office primarily through the sliding and shifting dimensions and height of the wide single window that provides the backdrop for all three rooms. I only wished we had stayed in the forest for the rest of the play, and that it had been allowed to infuse the action and characters with something of its elemental power. Instead, we and they returned to domestic and workplace interiors, and to an increasingly uneasy blend of drama and comedy bordering on bedroom farce that hardly seemed to do justice to the themes – life, death, extinction – that the play purported to raise.

Within these confines, cast and director do their best to keep the stakes high and navigate the sometimes contradictory demands of eco-drama, relationship comedy-drama and personal illness tragedy that the play yokes together – not altogether successfully, as they sometimes seem to be pulling in different directions. Hannah Day as the conflicted young zoologist who is also at the centre of the play’s chief romantic triangle copes best with these shifts in gear. Myles Pollard as her more single-minded environmentalist vetinarian boyfriend creates a touching if rather emotionally stunted figure whose mysterious illness seems somewhat grafted onto his character. Matt Dyktinski and Sarah McNeill in supporting roles – as the recently divorced mining executive with a somewhat implausible soft spot for the survival of the near-extinct spotted quoll, and as the (also recently divorced) conservation director who is all-too-easily susceptible to the former’s devious charms – both have a harder job navigating the inconsistencies in their characters and the more farcical elements of the plot, including an entirely implausible and arguably superfluous second romantic triangle intersecting with the first one. By the time the play reached its inconclusive conclusion, with zoologist and vet improbably reunited over live footage of a spotted quoll wirelessly transmitted to her smartphone (and projected onto the rear wall) – echoing the opening scene with its clumsy device of a robotically animated quoll making unconvincing noises on the vet’s operating table – I felt my sympathies and intelligence had been stretched beyond breaking point. In the end, neither Woltjen’s elegant set (coolly and unobtrusively lit by Trent Suidgeest and framed by a clean-edged acoustic guitar score by Ben Collins) nor the actors’ committed performances (supported by Stuart Halusz’s clear-eyed direction) could compensate for the structural weaknesses of the script and the ultimately superficial treatment of the play’s themes.

*

Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s new production Fox is adapted from the beautiful and heartrending children’s book written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Ron Brooks, who together also co-created one of my favourite children’s books, Old Pig. If the earlier book is unambiguously about death and loss, Fox is a more elusive but equally challenging fable about relationships. Like all great writing and art created specifically for children, it demonstrates that the mysterious inevitability of pain as the corollary of love is something that children and adults alike are capable of dealing with.

Spare Parts Associate Director Michael Barlow has directed and co-created the show in collaboration with former Artistic Director and long-term company mentor Noriko Nishimoto and choreographer Jacob Lehrer, and it's performed by three dancers inhabiting and manipulating elements of costume that consist of removable headgear and flowing pieces of silk to represent the three animal characters in the story. The eloquently minimal costumes and set are designed by Leon Hendroff, who has created a fluid and tangible world of ‘puppetry without puppets’, so to speak, that wisely avoids trying to represent the natural environment or its creatures in any literal or even consistently solid way. Unlike Inheritance, this is a symbolic and psychological response to the Australian landscape and its fauna (native and introduced) as the setting and figures of an archetypal story that has much in common with the tales of Grimm or Andersen, or even the more primordial realm of myth and dreaming. As such, it speaks across ages, generations and cultures, in a language of images that intrinsically requires little in the way of dialogue or narration. 

The aesthetic of this production is subtle: silk is the unifying fabric that binds costumes and set together. In fact there is an airy lightness about the design and performances that doesn’t quite sit for me with the earthier and harsher images and tones of the book; the same goes for the gentleness of Graham Walne’s lighting and the sweetness of Lee Buddle’s score. In short: I felt that the show avoided or softened some of the pain of the original story. This disjunction wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t also made visible and audible to the audience, as the original illustrations are projected onto a screen backdrop and the original text is reproduced in voiceover by Kyle Morrison (from Yirra Yaakin) throughout the action. I couldn’t help wondering what the show would have been like if it had been liberated from these visual and verbal references completely, as the latter seemed to compete at times with the mood of what was happening onstage. I was also doubtful about the occasional lines of dialogue and vocal sounds uttered by the dancer/puppeteers, which sometimes sounded forced and unconvincing.

In short: I had the feeling that this was a tale that could have been told purely through the movement of bodies and objects, using the strengths of the performers and scenography to maximum effect. The disjunction between forms of storytelling was especially jarring for me at the end of the show, which seemed to come to an abrupt halt with the words ‘Slowly, yippety-hop, she begins the long journey home’ and the image of the crippled magpie lost and abandoned in the vastness of the desert, while consoling music seemed to suggest an unlikely happy ending; whereas the book ends with a more ambiguous final image of the riverbank where Dog and Magpie have made their home, but with neither character visible.

Nevertheless, I found Fox the richest experience of the three productions under review. The power of the original source material and the suggestiveness of the visual design stayed with me long afterwards. Spare Parts is arguably the oldest surviving theatre company in Perth (founded in 1981, a decade before Black Swan, Yirra Yaakin, Perth Theatre Company or Barking Gecko) and one of the most distinctive in terms of its artistic history and identity (Noriko Nishimoto being the creative spirit who has accompanied or guided it throughout most of its journey). That sense of tradition is palpable onstage, but there is also a sense of the company continually evolving. Long may it continue to do so.














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