Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Postcard from Adelaide 

Hotel (OzAsia Festival); Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium, ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’

I was in Adelaide last week for the Australian Theatre Forum. While I was there I saw two shows at the OzAsia Festival: Hotel by Singapore company W!ld Rice and The Dark Inn by Japanese playwright-director Kuro Tanino. I also attended ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’ – a ‘satellite symposium’ organised by the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network.


Hotel is a five-hour, two-part production that premiered at the Singapore Festival in 2015; I saw Parts One and Two at the Dunstan Playhouse in the Adelaide Festival Centre in a single afternoon-and-evening marathon with a dinner break between the two parts. It’s an epic work of inter-cultural ensemble theatre, directed by the company’s founder Ivan Heng and co-artistic director Glen Oei, written by resident playwright Alian Sa’at and Marcia Veerstraaten, and featuring a multi-racial cast of 14, including Chinese, Indian, Malay and mixed-race Singaporean actors.
The structure of the play consists of 11 ‘scenes’ – discrete one-act plays really – set in the same unnamed luxury hotel room in successive decades over the last 100 years of Singapore history. It’s a brilliant conceit, as the hotel room becomes a metaphor for the city itself as it passes through one regime after another: the British Empire, the Japanese Occupation, post-war independence, separation from Malaysia, Lee Kwan Yew’s authoritarian ‘democracy’, and finally the post-LKY, post-GFC and post-9/11 surveillance-state it remains today.
Crucially, the dialogue alternates between multiple languages – including Cantonese, Tamil, Malay, Japanese and English (often more than one is used in the same scene) – simultaneously translated and projected on screens above and either side of the stage. This linguistic layering and framing reflects the shifting (but always racially tinged) stratification of Singapore society from one era to the next: the dominant class and language shifting from English to Japanese to Chinese; the Indians occupying the lower-middle ranks; and the indigenous Malays at the bottom of the hierarchy.
In terms of its material, then, Hotel is very specifically ‘made in Singapore’. However, as the play goes on, and stories and characters (or their descendants) from earlier scenes reappear or intersect in unexpected ways, the city’s history becomes indistinguishable from that of the increasingly globalised world – most pointedly so in the penultimate post-9/11 scene, when a Muslim Malay family who’ve just checked in are targeted as terrorists. And in the final scene, when a Chinese man dying of cancer chooses to spend his final months in the hotel room, it comes to stand for life itself: a ‘transient’ space in which we are all ‘guests’.
The play continually shifts in focus from broader historical, social or political themes to more domestic, individual, corporeal or spiritual dimensions which exceed all forms of national, racial, cultural, linguistic, religious and even sexual/gender identity. For example, at the climax of one of the funniest scenes in Part Two, a ‘straight’ US ex-serviceman decides to let himself be fucked by a mixed-race trans-woman who reveals that despite going through with hormone therapy she decided to keep her penis on the scheduled day of the operation (in defiance, respectively, of her Catholic mother and the rigid binarism of her medical team). And in one of the most poignant moments in the show, the son of a Japanese military officer and a Malay former comfort-woman kneels before his long-lost mother and apologizes to her for the atrocities committed by his adoptive country – 40 years after he was taken from her as a baby by his father in the same hotel room and shipped back to Japan (a heart-rending earlier scene in Part One).
The wide-ranging script was apparently generated by the actors doing their own research for each decade/scene, and then improvising plots, characters and dialogue – all which of was then shaped and refined by the playwrights. This creative process accounts not only for the breadth of the material, but also for the sense of connection and ownership that emanated from the cast. Conversely (and perhaps inevitably) I found some of the writing a little broad-brushstroke; and the same could be said of some of the performances – which (perhaps ironically) didn’t always avoid a degree of ethnic stereotyping (exuberant Indians, domineering Chinese, submissive Malays, etc). Staging, lighting and music also felt a little unimaginative and even clunky at times; the relentlessly musical-theatre-style scene-changes (accompanied by documentary-style video projections) becoming increasingly didactic and repetitive as the show wore on. I felt I was watching an intentionally ‘mainstream’ production, at least in terms of its aesthetic. Perhaps its makers didn’t want to alienate their audience artistically while challenging them in terms of political, religious and sexual content. One must also be mindful of context: this was a production made for a Singapore audience, as opposed to one in Melbourne or Berlin.
Despite these reservations, I found the whole journey immensely entertaining and at times deeply moving. As is often the case with large-scale ensemble productions, I loved becoming familiar with each of the actors and following their individual journeys through their multiple roles. Some of the older, more experienced performers were more capable than others of fully and truthfully inhabiting and fleshing out their roles – a challenge given that most of the characters had only one scene to establish themselves. Nevertheless I found it easy to forgive occasional weaknesses in the writing, staging or performances because of the diversity of stories, genres, voices, faces, bodies and levels of skill.
The audience in the Dunstan Playhouse was predominantly white, middle-aged and middle-class. They seemed to enjoy themselves too, and to ride the show’s ups-and-downs. In the dinner break between Parts One and Two, I left the Festival Centre and wandered over to the Lucky Dumpling outdoor Asian food market nearby. It was a completely different crowd: much more diverse in age, class and cultural background.
I wondered what it would take to get a crowd like that into the theatre to see Hotel.


The next day I was back at the Festival Centre for the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium ‘Dramaturgies of the Social and Cultural’: two days of keynote lectures and roundtable discussions expertly co-curated by Malaysian-Australian performance maker and dramaturg Lim How Ngean and Australian independent artist and thinker David Pledger. It was a demanding, occasionally frustrating and always thought-provoking two days that left me chewing on the question of what dramaturgy or the dramaturg might be or have to offer performance-makers today.

David led with a keynote, ‘Operating Systems in Concentric Circles’, loosely defining ‘dramaturgy’ as ‘how something works’. He applied this to the dramaturgy of his own performance company Not Yet It’s Difficult, which he described as operating in ‘concentric circles’ from an initial creative idea and team of core artists, extending to a further ‘circle’ of experts in relation to the initial idea, and then to further ‘circles’ of artistic and non-artistic colleagues who might provide further input and feedback. He then extended this notion of dramaturgy from the sphere of creative practice to larger ‘concentric circles’ like culture, society and even democracy; criticized the isolation of theatre and performance from these broader ‘circles’ of practice and reflection; and specifically advocated for a creative dramaturgical intervention in relation to democracy itself, in an era when the latter has become systematically distorted by the ideology of neo-liberalism. This ambitious prescription for political dramaturgy was illustrated by examples from David’s work as a curator, such as the use of ‘body-listening’ as a form of facilitation, and the structural inclusion of young people as instigators/provocateurs (or ‘free radicals’) in the biennial Gold Coast conference-event ‘2970°: The Boiling Point’.

In the first roundtable discussion that followed, ‘The Public(s) and the Arts’, the three speakers were Shawn Chua, a Singapore-based researcher and artist; Rachael Swain, co-artistic director of Broome-based inter-cultural dance theatre company Marrugeku; and Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Singapore theatre company Drama Box and a Nominated Member of Parliament – which (as he explained to me afterwards) means he is appointed specifically to represent the arts constituency and is able to vote on all except budgetary legislation (in itself a remarkable advance on Australia when it comes to the significance of the arts in society). Shaun delivered a nuanced account of recent ‘participatory’ performances in Singapore, including a sly critique of participatory-performance ‘tours’ that enrol the audience-participants as ‘extras’, and advocating a dramaturgical ethics of ‘friction’ in order to make ‘rough’ work that exposes contradictions rather than ‘smoothing them over’. Rachel told a powerful story about dramaturging a solo indigenous dance performance in an outdoor recreation venue for a remote Aboriginal community, and then gave further examples where tensions emerge and have to be negotiated between artists and communities (especially over issues of territory). And finally Heng Leun spoke of the dramaturgy of community engagement in the context of participatory performances in public spaces, referring to his own use of live game-show formats in public housing zones, parks and cemeteries, and the installation of an inflatable pop-up venue that is both open and semi-closed in order to accommodate the needs of the work, the rights of the public and the exigencies of the law in Singapore (where public gatherings are tightly controlled by the state).

I began to sense that for many at the symposium ‘dramaturgy’ referred not only to the work of a particular individual (‘the dramaturg’), but to a more diffusely located and shared form of reflective and creative practice – and even beyond this, to a latent or inherent quality or structure in the text or performance itself. Moreover, the entire session led me to reflect on the ethics and politics of dramaturgy – and even to think of dramaturgy as an ethical and political practice.


That night I met up with some Adelaide friends for an Asian meal. They included a novelist and poet, a musician and former academic, and two teachers. We didn’t talk about dramaturgs or dramaturgy – at least not directly. The former academic – a German scholar – quoted Brecht: ‘Grub first, then ethics’. I thought about Brecht as a dramaturg and theorist of dramaturgy – one who perhaps understood more deeply than anyone the ethics and politics of ‘how theatre works’.


Day Two of the symposium began with a keynote by Singaporean researcher and dramaturg Charlene Rajendran entitled ‘Difference and Aesthetic Agency – Dramaturging Choices for Change’. This provided a sweeping overview of the work of three major Singaporean director-dramaturgs (who, she acknowledged ironically, were all Chinese, as well as being all male). She also spoke suggestively of the work of the dramaturg as involving a practice of ‘deep listening’ and ‘active presence’, and invoked the mythical figures of the familiar spirit or trickster-god in Malay folklore, accompanying, questioning and occasionally provoking the theatre-maker to a new level of political consciousness. I thought of the Fool in King Lear, speaking truth to power at a time of crisis – and of how the figure of the dramaturg rose to prominence in German theatre after the catastrophe of the Second World War, when artistic and political roles and responsibilities were being reflectively interrogated across the board. Perhaps in this context the dramaturg could even be considered a kind of therapist or catalyst for change.

The roundtable that followed, ‘Difference and Deference – The Question of Culture’, picked up on these themes, specifically in relation to working across cultures and communities. Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at (one of the co-writers of Hotel) spoke about representing inter-cultural experience in his plays, specifically in reference to inter-marriage across cultures and religions. Australian actor, broadcaster and producer Annette Shun Wah spoke about her organisation Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and its progress in developing and promoting the work of Asian Australian performers and playwrights across the industry (a theme picked up in her brief ‘firecracker update’ at the Australian Theatre Forum the following day). And South Australian theatre maker Edwin Kemp Attrill, artistic director of Act Now Theatre in Adelaide, described his work in interactive and participatory theatre, in particular using Augusto Boal’s technique of ‘forum theatre’ with oppressed communities such as the disabled, LGBTQ, young people, migrants and refugees.

The symposium ended with a discussion facilitated by David, Charlene and How Ngean, including everyone present and inviting more personal reflections on the question of dramaturgy, the role of the dramaturg and what these terms might mean in various contexts. A Singaporean artist who runs a play-space for children had an epiphany about being ‘a dramaturg of her own life’ in relation to her own inter-cultural marriage, and summarised her position on dramaturgy with the motto: ‘let art do what art does’. I confessed to my own misgivings about conventional script-dramaturgy, in the context of being employed by companies and organisations as a dramaturg, and then feeling as if I was collaborating in a process whereby playwrights lost their original vision. And a Malaysian writer, editor and producer vented her frustration at listening to all this talk about ‘dramaturgy’ and ‘Asia’, as she remembered similar discussions in Australia in the heady days of the early 90s, and wondered what had been achieved since then. Perhaps, she suggested, we needed to apply a little more ‘conceptual rigor’ to the dramaturgy of our own discussions!

Despite these misgivings and frustrations, I came away from the symposium with the sense that dramaturgy has a new meaning in the context of theatre-making today, especially in regard to inter-cultural, cross-artform and collaborative work. This was the tentative frame of mind with which I would approach the Australian Theatre Forum the next day – about which more in my next Postcard.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Postcard from Adelaide

Schaubühne Berlin Richard III, Barrie Kosky's Saul

As a friend and colleague remarked to me when we met up to see a show at the Adelaide Festival Centre on Saturday night, there’s something about the Festival here that feels more like a national (and even international) convergence of audiences and artists than any other festival in Australia. Perhaps Perth is just a little too far away for people from the eastern seaboard to make the journey; Melbourne feels a little too much like a festival-city all year-round; Sydney doesn’t need a festival in order to be a destination-city for work or pleasure; and Brisbane and the other smaller or more regionally-focused festivals are…well, just a little too small.

There’s also something about Adelaide itself – the size, the layout, the weather in March, the proximity of public space (especially the river and parklands) to the main venues, the bon vivant culture – that makes it an ideal setting for an arts festival. Whatever the reason, there’s a sense of the city coming together to celebrate itself and the arts – a sense, in short, of festivity – that makes it hard to resist joining in, if one has the means to do so.

I add the last qualification advisedly, as whenever I make it over here (which is almost invariably at Festival-time) I can’t help noticing the ‘other side’ of Adelaide – and perhaps of all cities with which one isn’t overly familiar: the sense of a massive social divide between the haves and have-nots. In Adelaide this is accompanied by an indefinable but sinister undertow, which is partly fed by urban mythology and partly by the city’s peculiar status as somewhere midway between miniature metropolis and large country town, with little in the way of a surviving industrial base to employ its (increasingly) non-working class. As such, it has something in common with Perth, now that the mining boom has come to an end and the ensuing recession is having a visible impact on the streets. As I walked the ravaged CBD en route from my comfortable digs in east Adelaide to the Festival venues and their mostly well-heeled patrons, I couldn’t help feeling a little haunted by some uncomfortable questions about who is invited to the feast, and who is left outside the door.

Nevertheless, arriving at my first destination, Her Majesty’s Theatre, to see the Schaubühne Berlin production of Richard III on the Friday night of the Festival’s opening weekend, I picked up on an extra air of excitement and expectation around this, the first under Neil Armfield and Rachel Healey’s tenure as joint artistic directors. There’s a sense of guiding artistic vision that recalls Barrie Kosky’s legendary Festival in 1996 (back in the days when it was still a biennial event, and all the more attractive as a pilgrimage because of that); along with perhaps a slightly broader mainstream appeal; and (most importantly for me) some irresistible theatre.

Thomas Ostermeier joined the artistic directorate of the Schaubühne Berlin in 1999, and since then the company has acquired a reputation as perhaps the most trend-setting theatre company in that most theatrically trend-setting of cities. As another theatre colleague of mine pointed out in the foyer, Richard III is the latest in a series of re-definitive re-stagings of the classic masterpieces of ‘bourgeois drama’ (Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov) by Ostermeier and others at the Schaubühne over the past fifteen years. Several of these have toured to Australia, including Ostermeier’s versions of A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, An Enemy of the People and Hamlet. The latter, like Richard, was translated and adapted by playwright and regular Ostermeier collaborator Marius von Mayenburg and featured Lars Eidinger in the title role.

I didn’t see Eidinger’s Hamlet, but from what I’ve heard his performance as the ‘mad’ Prince foreshadowed many aspects that characterise his version of Shakespeare’s crippled psychopathic King. Perhaps most notable is his use of extemporization – or perhaps a musical term like ‘decoration’ or ‘embellishment’ would be more exact. The Shakespeare text (in von Mayenburg’s German translation) is delivered as written (and translated back into English surtitles projected upstage) but is frequently interrupted by Eidinger, who repeats lines in English, or stops to read the surtitles in mock-astonishment, or breaks into an Eminem lyric, or delivers improvised one-liners, or even (at one point) leads the audience in a mocking chant of abuse directed at one of the other characters. He also moves freely (and at times seemingly on impulse) between the stage and the auditorium, exiting and entering not only through the wings but also the side-doors that lead to the foyer, or lurks in the semi-darkness around the outskirts of the seating, like a spider permanently lurking in the corners of the mind.

Eidinger has an animalistic physicality which, together with his powerful physique and anarchic stage persona, makes him resemble a rock-star as much as an actor. This is supported by the central feature of Jan Pappelbaum’s set design: a retractable microphone dangling from the ceiling, which Richard uses like an announcer in a boxing match whenever delivering a soliloquy or aside. Florence von Gerkan’s costume design for him similarly includes a boxer’s protective leather head-brace and boxer’s tape strapped across his knuckles, together with a padded hunch visibly strapped to his back and one outsized padded shoe to give him an exaggerated club-foot.

All this contributed to a thrilling sense of Richard’s theatricality, his punk-like disregard for propriety (stripping down to nudity in the Lady Anne wooing scene, and again in the later battle scenes), his confronting rapport with the audience, and his increasingly unpredictable and unhinged relationship with the other characters – and ultimately with himself. For Ostermeier’s (and von Mayenberg’s) version of the play is not so much a political study in tyranny, or even a psychological study in anti-social personality disorder, as it is a philosophical study in solipsism – the belief that the mind is the only reality, and the logical consequences that follow. It’s as if the production took its cue from Richard’s line in the precursor play to this one, Henry VI Part 3: ‘I am myself alone.’

German tradition has indeed long understood Shakespeare’s characters through the lense of Romantic irony as embodying the existential predicament of ‘absolute freedom’. As such, Eidinger’s Richard is more of a Dostoyevskian nihilist for whom ‘everything is permitted’ like Stavrogin or Ivan Karamazov than the familiar paranoid twentieth-century dictators to whom he is usually likened. This becomes more apparent in the second (and for me more revelatory) half of the show (which runs for two-and-a-half hours with no interval), when Richard assumes power only to find himself entering a kind of nightmare from which he can no longer awake, gradually becoming his own double and ultimately suicidal enemy. As such, he comes more and more to resemble Hamlet, who would count himself ‘a king of infinite space’ were it not that he has ‘bad dreams’.

As for his deformity (clearly a theatrical artifice rather than a realistic impediment), once he becomes king it is artificially constrained and corrected by a corset and neck-brace, as if the fulfilment of his wishes in the form of absolute power became the ultimate form of imprisonment within his own consciousness. Indeed there’s something both terrifying and pitiful about his transformation in Act IV when he dips his face in a bowl of whitewash and becomes his own death-mask before wooing Queen Elizabeth for her daughter’s hand; or lies on the table and moans like a child for ‘a horse…a horse…’ before hitching himself by the leg to the microphone cable and being hoisted up like a joint of meat on a butcher’s hook in the final image of the play.

Perhaps inevitably the rest of the cast and production seemed somewhat eclipsed by this central performance. Strong and complex secondary characters – particularly the women of the play – were given short shrift, almost as if they were more like emanations of Richard’s mind rather than fully-fledged characters in their own right. Jan Pappelbaum’s split-level set design – basically a rough façade with balcony, steep stairs and a fireman’s pole – kept the action circulating; Sebastian Dupouey’s video projections of silhouettes of birds in flight onto the façade between scenes reinforced the ambience of swirling dread; Erich Schneider’s lighting design was almost clinically cold (the most conspicuous light being the one installed in Richard’s microphone which sculpted his face with an eerie glow whenever he spoke); and Nils Ostendorf’s live downstage drumming (supplemented by an aggressive techno soundtrack) added to the sense of a perverse circus or nightclub act gone wrong. Special mention should be made of the grimly humorous use of Bunraku-style puppet-schoolboys as the two hapless Princes in the Tower – their puppet-corpses later delivered to a trussed-up King Richard in his neck-brace and corset looking more and more like a puppet himself.

In short: the whole production was an object-lesson in theatrical craft servicing a single-minded and rigorous artistic conception, and a central performance which felt like one of the handful I’ve seen in my life that in some sense re-defined for me not only the role in question but acting itself.

We don’t see (or make) work like this often enough in Australia. We should.


From one mad King to another: Barrie Kosky’s fully staged production of Handel’s oratorio Saul is probably the defining coup of Armfield and Healey’s program (all performances sold out within days of its announcement last year). Originally conceived and presented as a Glyndebourne Festival production in 2015, it’s here remounted in collaboration with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the State Opera Chorus, and conducted by Melbourne Conservatorium-based early music specialist, keyboard performer and scholar Erin Helyard (who makes a spectacular stage appearance at one point on a miniature revolve while playing the organ like Handel himself – or indeed Barrie in one of his earlier theatre productions). The remount still features the British baritone Christopher Purves in the title role, along with (of course) the original costume and set design by Katrin Lea Tag, lighting design by Joachim Klein, and choreography by Otto Pichler, all regular collaborators with Barrie in his capacity as intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin and elsewhere.

The rest of the cast includes a hauntingly voiced counter-tenor Christopher Lowrey as the future King David; stalwart tenor Adrian Strooper (a member of the Komische Oper ensemble) as Saul’s son (and David’s devoted friend) Jonathan; gilt-edged soprano Mary Bevan as Saul’s daughter Marab; thrilling Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig as her sister Michal (for me giving the standout musical-dramatic-comedic performance of the night); Australian tenor and cabaret artist Kanen Breen (in full artificial bare-breasted drag) as the Witch of Endor; and versatile tenor Stuart Jackson in the composite role of the High Priest, Saul’s herdsman Doeg, his cousin and commander-in-chief Abner, and the Amakelite messenger who brings David the news of Saul and Jonathan’s death in battle – all of which he encompassed in the guise of an impishly camp, Bacchic master-of-ceremonies.

Barrie is a master at staging deliciously and deliriously surreal extravaganzas which celebrate Eros in all its polymorphous possibilities; but his vision also provides apocalyptic glimpses of the chasm of catastrophe into which we fall when Dionysus is denied – or given full sway. If his Urtext is The Bacchae, then his horizon is the Holocaust. However he is also (as he calls himself in the program note) ‘an extravagant minimalist’, at least when it comes to the layout of the stage itself, which is generally open and uncluttered in terms of set or furniture, so as to allow for maximum focus on the bodies (and voices) of the performers. His special talent is for striking physical images and collective movement; in opera, this lends itself especially to the staging of the choruses. As such, he remains true to the German operatic tradition of Bewegungsregie (movement-direction) as practised by his precursor Walter Felsenstein (the founder of the Komische Oper).

Saul provides ample opportunity for his vision and stagecraft to exercise themselves because as an oratorio it lacks inherent physical or dramatic impetus. Instead it’s more like a series of magnificent musical numbers (and corresponding emotional states) without sufficient narrative or thematic connective tissue between them to constitute a satisfyingly continuous or internally coherent experience without some form of radical directorial intervention. In fact Handel’s operas suffer from a similar lack of dramaturgical flow, in comparison say with Mozart’s – though this arguably has as much to do with the librettos as it does with the music (Charles Jennens, the librettist of Saul, was no Da Ponte). Barrie’s theatrical and thematic preoccupations – which focus on the body as means of expression and subject-matter – therefore have plenty of space to inhabit and animate what would otherwise remain dramatically inert.

In fact the most striking feature of Barrie’s staging in Saul is the use of crowded tableaux vivants or ‘still lives’ – whether composed of brightly lit and costumed human bodies or the more traditional arrangements of food, flowers and domestic possessions which we associate with the period (and especially the art and architecture) of the Baroque from which the oratorio is drawn. These tableaux are arranged on and around two huge (literal) tables which, themselves inventively rearranged from one scene to the next, are the only stage-furniture in the show. They evoke an age of economic and material bounty (at least for the ruling classes), but also of religious and political reaction and absolutism, against which renewed social, artistic and intellectual impulses towards freedom were already striving (and can be heard in the music itself).

Barrie’s interest in the work however is less political or historical than psychological and archetypal. Saul’s ‘madness’ – much debated by Biblical scholars, theologians and psychologists even today – here becomes the divine punishment visited on one who resists or attempts to over-regulate his own (fundamentally sexual) impulses. This is not the madness of Nebuchadnezzar, which is a punishment for blasphemy and pride, or even of Lear, which has more to do with the abuses of power and injustice. It’s more closely related to the madness of Pentheus in The Bacchae – and in Barrie’s surreal imagination leads to a similar de-naturing (and eventual dismemberment). Saul’s aggressive envy toward David as a rival talent, warrior and future king is thus a twisted form of narcissistic sexual jealousy – in contrast with his son Jonathan, who loves David but is willing to share him with his sister Michal (unlike their sister Merab, who rejects David because of his inferior social class even more emphatically than her father does). As such, Saul becomes a perverse family saga which resembles Pasolini’s Teorema, with David as the angelic object of lust whose beauty destroys a dynasty.

The most striking image of all in this production occurs when Saul visits the Witch of Endor (here represented as a kind of Tiresias complete with ‘wrinkled dugs’ as Eliot describes him in The Waste Land) on an empty plain of black rubble, and suckles on his/her teat in order to summon up the ghost of the prophet Samuel within himself (the role is here sung by Saul himself as if in a form of demonic possession). The same empty black plain is then filled with the corpses of the Chorus of Israelites who have been slain in battle by the Philistines – among them the decapitated bodies of Saul and Jonathan, their heads sitting in the rubble beside them, in a direct echo of the severed head of Goliath which sat there in the rubble, illuminated by Joachim Klein’s Carravaggio-like lighting, as the opening image of the opera.

Purves is marvellous in the title role, vigorous and expressive in voice and action, and fully embraces Barrie’s highly physical interpretation of the role’s demands. In an interesting parallel with Eidinger’s Richard III, this ‘mad king’ also breaks out into extemporized speech during the opera while the other characters continue singing – underscoring the sense that madness also involves a kind of aesthetic ‘break in form’. Personally I didn’t feel this device worked as well as it did in Richard, possibly because it felt more like a gear-change into naturalism which seemed a little weak in comparison with the ritualised nature of the rest of the production, and the work itself. At times (particularly towards the end of the show) I also felt that perhaps there was a little too much Bewegung for Bewegungs sake, in comparison with the shattering moments of stillness when the mis-en-scene was at its most eloquent.

Musically and (for the most part) dramatically, though, this Saul was a triumph, and the audience responded accordingly when the curtain came down, even more than they did with Richard. Mad kings, psychopaths, narcissists…perhaps there was some recognition of the times we live in.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Postcard from Perth Festival

Complicité, The Encounter; Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, Opus No. 7; Back to Back, Lady Eats Apple

I only arrived back in Perth last weekend after six weeks’ absence, so was just in time to catch a few shows in the final week of the Festival.

Complicité’s The Encounter has already been generously reviewed during its recent seasons at The Malthouse in Melbourne and at the Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival (next stop Adelaide); in Perth it was staged in the Edwardian glory of His Majesty’s Theatre (in ironic counterpoint to the postmodern form and post-colonial content of the show). The work premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015 and has since toured the UK, Europe and the US, as well as having a limited ‘season’ on the internet; immediately prior to its Australian tour it had a stint on Broadway. Popular and critical reception has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, so it’s with some trepidation that I advance my own reservations about the work in the paragraphs that follow.

Complicité was founded in the UK in 1983 and is one of the most famous theatre companies in the world – in its early years because of its very un-English focus on physical and visual theatre (its key founding members trained at the Lecoq School in Paris), but more recently because of its use of technology as a kind of extension of the body and the senses to augment the physical and visual aspects of the company’s work (and, some claim, theatre itself).

It’s fair to say that The Encounter has generated a buzz primarily because of its use of sound technology – and in particular so-called ‘3D audio’. Live sound (generated onstage by the actor) is captured by a ‘binaural’ microphone (which is suggestively shaped like a human head) and transmitted to each individual member of the audience via headphones (which we are asked to wear throughout the show). The uncanny effect is that the sound appears to move 360 degrees around your head, depending on the location of the actor in relation to the microphone.

In fact this is just one element in a densely layered use of live and pre-recorded sound to reflect the many temporal, geographical, narrative, theatrical and ontological layers of the story and the performance itself. These layers include: a journey to the Amazon in search of the Mayoruna people by National Geographic photographer Lorin Macintyre, which provides the ostensible subject-matter of the show; a book about that journey, Amazon Beaming, by Romanian author Petru Popescu (who interviewed Macintyre), which allegedly inspired the show (Macintyre himself having died before its research and creation began); conversations recorded by the show’s writer/director/solo performer Simon McBurney with Popescu and others (including a scientific ‘expert’ on the subject of time as well as McBurney’s young daughter, who interrupts him in his London flat while he’s working on the show); the time of the performance itself; and the fact that McBurney’s original role in the show playing himself and Macintyre – the pitch of his voice digitally lowered via another microphone for the purpose – is (at least for the Australian leg of the tour) being taken by another actor, Richard Katz.

So many layers, and so much mediation – human and technological! Perhaps the intention is to provide a kind of formal allegory for the tale of personal, cultural and (implicitly) environmental devastation that provides the content of the work. Yet the cumulative effect for me was curiously cerebral, imaginatively impoverished, emotionally detached and physically disembodied. As a theatre colleague observed to me afterwards, the show climaxed early on, during the technological preamble, when Katz blew into our collective right ear via the binaural microphone and we not only heard but felt the warmth of his breath. This moment of suggestive sensation was unmatched by anything that followed, for all the show’s undeniably spectacular use of sound, lighting, projection, set design, and Katz’s considerable technical prowess as an actor/sound technician (though I found his performance curiously disengaged and unaffecting, perhaps because of the degree of mediation and multi-tasking involved).

In part, I think this sense of disconnection had to do with the competing mix of live, recorded and ‘augmented’ performance-realities. It’s telling in this regard that a couple of people I know have described the experience of watching The Encounter on their computers as being more satisfying for them than seeing it in the theatre. As my daughter (who saw the show with me) observed afterwards, listening to a sophisticated radio broadcast or podcast was for her a far more immersive and indeed transporting experience than the multi-media event she had just witnessed. So, too, I would venture to say, might be a more intimate staging without using microphones and/or in the dark; or even perhaps the more ‘primitive’ experience of reading Popescu’s book.

As for the content of the work: Macintyre’s tale (as retold by Popescu via McBurney) of cross-cultural ‘encounter’ with a group of doomed noble savages felt somewhat dated and even hackneyed. This became especially oppressive in the final act of the work, when the naive Western photographer assumed his anointed role as some kind of predestined witness to the Mayorunas in their desperate effort to ‘return’ to the source of their existence by destroying their attachment to material things and retracing their way upstream to the source of the river itself.

As Marx recognised, it is not objects or technologies that dominate or liberate us, divide or connect us – it is human relationships, and systems of relationships. To believe otherwise is fetishism: whether in its ‘primitive’ form (long debunked by Lévi-Strauss as an anthropological fantasy), the commodity-form described by Marx, or its current technological-utopian manifestations – of which the head-shaped binaural microphone is perhaps only the latest avatar.


The Russian designer/visual artist/director Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 was for me an altogether more challenging, provocative and unpredictable work of theatre. Staged in the vast and shifting spaces of the ABC Perth Studios, it involved puppetry and object-theatre, clowning, live and recorded music, dynamic scenography, onstage visual-art-making, video-projection, an ensemble of eight performers, and almost no dialogue, but occasional fragments of song or song-lyrics, muttered phrases or words (mostly names), and (in the second half) archival recordings of public speeches and broadcasts.

In fact the work is the collaborative creation of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory at the Theatre School of Dramatic Art in Moscow, where Krymov currently teaches and makes work in a unique combination of practices. This gives his student-cast a palpable sense of collective authorship and an intriguing variety of skills as performers and performance-makers.

Krymov’s work obviously derives from the early Revolutionary Russian avant-garde traditions of constructivism, montage and what a theatre colleague who saw the show referred me to as the ‘theory of attractions’ as articulated and practised by Eisenstein (who before becoming a film director was a theatre director and student of Meyerhold, and in turn profoundly influenced Brecht). The term ‘attractions’ here evokes a circus-like sequence of ‘acts’ or sideshows which each have an independent impact on the spectators, who then make the narrative or thematic connections themselves, rather than having them spelled out by the writer or director.

The first half of Opus No.7, ‘Genealogy’, dealt with themes and images from Jewish history, and in particular the persecution of the Jews in Russia before and after the Second World War, as a kind of precursor and prototype for political and artistic persecution generally. Songs, music and burlesque-style ‘acts’ were punctuated by the surrealistic manipulation of set, props, costumes and bodies. The principle element of scenic construction (and deconstruction) was an artificial back wall through which holes were cut, limbs and figures emerged, a whirlwind of paper-scraps was at one point blasted out into the audience, items of clothing were hung and animated, and black-and-white footage and stills were hauntingly projected – this entire sequence of ‘attractions’ evoking an initially absurd but increasingly harrowing scenario of persecution.

This scenario became more specific in the second half of the show, ‘Shostakovich’, which transformed the space and auditorium into a vast open circus-ring, and featured a Chaplin-like central performance by Kristina Pivneva as a diminutive female clown-version of the composer, pitted against a giant puppet Mother Russia, an army of similarly gigantic and monstrous prop-pianos, and extensive (and occasionally deafening) use of recordings of Shostakovich’s music as well as some of his more notoriously compliant public speeches and broadcasts.

Much like the composer’s music (and life), the rhythms, pace, dynamics and tone of the performance and image-making in this second half became more demanding even as its content (Shostakovich’s artistic and personal ordeals and compromises with the Soviet regime) became more explicit. At times the staging felt relentless and even unyielding to the audience’s eyes, ears or capacity for patience; there were fewer ‘attractions’, and some longueurs. Nevertheless, in comparison with the Complicité production, I left with the sense of having had a much more authentic, sophisticated and profound ‘encounter’ –with the use of mixed-media in performance, with another cultural-historical tradition, and with what it means to be an artist and a human being in the world.


The final work I saw at the Festival was for me both the most powerful and the hardest to describe: Back to Back Theatre’s most recent production Lady Eats Apple. This was billed as a ‘World Premiere Season’, which puzzles me, as it was previously performed at the Melbourne Festival in 2016. Perhaps it’s been reworked since then. Certainly it has the feeling not so much of a work-in-progress as a work-in-a-perpetual-state-of-becoming – which is not inappropriate for a work about God, Creation and mortality.

Back to Back is a contemporary performance company based in Geelong with a core ensemble of performers who have (or are perceived to have) intellectual disabilities. Their shows are devised by the cast in collaboration with director (and longstanding company artistic director) Bruce Gladwin and other artists (actor/devisors, dramaturgs, etc). Their work is totally unique, and each show is groundbreaking.

Lady Eats Apple is staged in a bubble (designed by Mark Cuthbertson) – or more precisely, a bubble-shaped, inflatable tent-like structure consisting of two layered membranes of fabric which enclose the audience and performers (at least initially) in a theatre-within-a-theatre (in this case the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre WA). The night I saw it, the heat and humidity were almost overpowering: it had been in the high 30s all day, and the theatre’s air-conditioning system obviously couldn’t penetrate inside the bubble. People in the audience were fanning themselves; at once stage (during the most difficult section of the show, which takes place in almost complete darkness) I thought I was going to pass out, or have a claustrophobic attack. Yet I remained mesmerized throughout.

As with The Encounter, each seat is provided with headphones, which we are asked to wear throughout the show, and the performers wear microphones. There is nothing fancy about the sound technology though, which is purely functional. The speech of the disabled performers in Lady Eats Apple is difficult to hear and understand, especially when they are a long way away from us, which is the case in the final section of the show. (An earlier Back to Back show, Small Metal Objects, which was performed outdoors at Flinders Street Railway Station, also used headphones for the audience, to isolate the speech of the performers from the noise of the crowd around them.) The use of headphones also creates an extraordinary sense of privacy and even intimacy with the performers, especially in scenes involving dialogue, which almost feel like they are being overheard rather than performed for our benefit. (Surtitles are also used, though this has a more ironically ‘othering’ effect, almost as if ‘disabled’ speech is being treated as a kind of ‘foreign’ language that requires ‘translation’.)

Act One, ‘A New Creation’, is the easiest part of the show: a kind of absurdist sketch in which a besuited, bespectacled and bow-tied actor (Brian Lipson), who resembles an eccentric mentor or kindly psychiatrist (but may also be someone or something more sinister), holds up animal-picture-cards which are named by a disabled actor (Scott Price) – who, it gradually becomes apparent, is (or thinks he is) God (or some kind of Gnostic demiurge) naming his creations. At this point two other disabled actors (Mark Deans and Sarah Mainwaring) appear as Adam and Eve, and we begin to wonder about the identity of the mentor/psychiatrist – is he perhaps Satan, or even Old Noboddady himself (the counter-theology of William Blake seems to hover over this production).

Needless to say, catastrophe ensues – for Adam and Eve, but also for God and his mentor – and we are plunged into the much more demanding world of Act Two, ‘Matter Creates Matter’. This is most abstract and in many ways most radical section of the show, in which sound recordings of first-person accounts of near-death experiences accompany an immersive multi-sensory perceptual encounter with the Sublime (which Kant defined as an overwhelming experience of simultaneous pleasure and horror in relation to an object or idea which cannot be fully grasped by the senses or the understanding). This involved a rippling soundscape and huge shifting pattern-projections passing across the ceiling of the bubble, while almost imperceptible shadowy figures gradually appeared, moved around and disappeared on (or beyond) the translucent but dimly lit back wall. The whole sequence is a triumph of immersive scenography by set designer Mark Cuthbertson, projection designer Rhian Hinkley, lighting designer Andrew Livingston, composer Chris Abrahams, and sound designers Marco Cher-Gibard, Nick Carroll and Lachlan Carrick. Admittedly I felt like I was going through a near-death experience of my own, in part because of the heat, but also because of the collaborative artistry of the conception and execution. This was a lesson in how multiple technologies and modes of perception can be unified in a theatrical evocation of something which (like death, or the Kantian Sublime) cannot be fully presented or understood.

Act Three, ‘The Human Bond’, is challenging in a different way. The set design performs its final ‘reveal’ and the full cast of disabled and non-disabled actors (now also including Simon Laherty and Romany Latham) returns to inhabit a new and more mundane ‘inverted world’. Here everyday injustices, love-trysts, acts of compassion (well-meaning or inept) and small miracles take place (or fail to). I was reminded of the way Northern Renaissance paintings place Biblical figures and scenes in local contemporary landscapes and social settings, and the way this illuminates the divine in the human, and the human in the divine. In this case, it was an inversion not only of the sacred and the secular, but also of the weak and the strong, the humble and the proud.

For Lady Eats Apple is not only a work about God, Creation and mortality, but also about (divine and human) justice and love. This is where the community-based nature of Back to Back’s work feeds most directly and deeply back into its artistic vision, reminding us of Blake’s words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.’

Lady Eats Apple is not always easy or comfortable viewing, but for me it was certainly the most moving, visceral and thought-provoking experience I had at the Festival.