Postcards from the UK, Europe and the US: Creative Development Fellowship

Postcard from London [1]

Back in England; Shared Experience, Mermaid; Vincent Dance Theatre, 21 Years




I’m writing this Postcard in one of the slightly-the-worse-for-wear front carriages of the 10.02 to Chichester as it pulls out from London Victoria. I hope I’m far enough to the front, as the rear ones mysteriously end up in Bognor Regis. The view through the window is not encouraging: bare trees and concrete tower blocks rise up beneath leaden skies. It’s early spring, but you wouldn’t know it. 

England.

The carriage is almost empty at first, but as we pull up at Clapham Junction a horde of people pour in: emotionally contained locals (who mostly seem to dress in hiking gear as if about to embark on a trek through the Himalayas even on the Tube in central London) and more expensively attired, bedecked, coiffured and openly sulky tourists (half of whom later get off at Gatwick Airport). Two out of three people slump over handheld devices; others stare straight ahead or murmur in pairs as if under surveillance. Perhaps we are. According to a recent story in The Guardian there are 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK, one of the highest concentrations per capita in the world. More generally, there’s a culture of compliance here (at least among the English, I don’t include the Celts) that goes back at least to 1066 – not insignificantly the only date in English history that everyone remembers. Perhaps that’s why they’re so ready to form queues.

Like most Anglo-Australians, I feel an ancestral connection to the place. My maternal grandparents were born in Lancashire, and my father (a Viennese Jew) married his first wife at St Mary Abbot’s in Kensington before getting on the last boat to Fremantle before war was declared in 1939. I was born and grew up in Melbourne, which in the 1960s and 70s was (and perhaps still is) the most English of Australian cities, notwithstanding the waves of post-war multicultural immigration. I went to a private school modelled on English ‘public’ schools, whose English headmaster encouraged me to go to a prestigous English university. I left half-thinking I’d never come back, and spent three years in the tertiary equivalent of Hogwarts, polishing my indeterminate accent and veneer of Anglo-European cultural literacy. 

I immersed myself in undergraduate theatre, practised techniques of emotional denial and developed delusions about myself and the world which began to break down shortly after I finished my Finals. I lingered on for another few months in the student house I’d shared, and did some cash-in-hand work for a friend laying a slab for a studio he was building in his back yard. I flew home for Christmas on a return ticket; when I arrived at Melbourne airport, the laid-back accents and ironic manner of the ground staff hit me like a sharp whiff of eucalyptus or the dry cackle of a kookaburra. Two days before I was due to return, I cancelled my flight and decided to stay.

I’ve been back three or four times since then; perhaps it’s no coincidence that my first partner (and mother of my children) was born in London, and my current wife’s mother was born in Sussex; so now I (and my kids) have extended family here as well. I’ve also maintained contact with some of my closest friends from Hogwarts because of the intensity of the bonds we formed in those crucial years, especially in the context of undergraduate theatre – far (in my case, very far) from home and in the hothouse of an institution that nurtured impossible expectations, at least for those who weren’t already beneficiaries of the streamlined class system. Fredric Raphael nailed this in his late 70s TV drama The Glittering Prizes, which I watched at the time but was too young to heed. Instead I (along with everyone else) was captivated by Brideshead Revisited, which we watched in the undergraduate common room every Sunday night.

*

I arrived in London last Friday morning on the first leg of a five-month pilgrimage of international travel, research, observation and training, courtesy of a mid-career Creative Development Fellowship grant from the WA Department of Culture and the Arts. I’ve got a self-devised itinerary that’s taking me from London to Glasgow, Orkney, Berlin, Minneapolis, New York and Paris. There’s also a less defined journey in my head; I don’t know exactly where it’s taking me, but it’s looping back into the past and spiralling forward into the future. There are people, places and experiences I need to revisit, pursue or discover so that I can move into the next phase of my life as an artist and a human being.

I’m staying in a garden flat in Islington, courtesy of Airbnb. It turns out to be a few blocks back from a shabby stretch of Holloway Rd near Arsenal Stadium, in a quiet Victorian crescent. Turning the corner feels like entering one of those wrinkles in time London seems to harbour everywhere. There’s also a teeming diversity of cultures here one can only dream of in Melbourne, let alone Perth. Ironically my Indian host lives in Sydney, but his mother and cousin are waiting for me when I arrive. Later I learn his parents are struggling to deal with his absence; his mother tells me it’s customary in Indian culture for children go on living with or near their parents.  

I shop at a nearby Tescos and have dinner at the local pub next to the Tube station. I’ll be living here for the next ten days. Already it feels like a home away from home. When I leave ten days later, my host’s mother tells me she’ll miss me.

*

On Saturday morning I head off to Three Mills, a vast film studio complex (and former tidal mill) on an island in the River Lea in East London, for a final rehearsal/first runthough of Mermaid: a new production by literary/physical storytelling theatre company Shared Experience, written and directed by longstanding artistic director Polly Teale. 

I’ve been reading about Shared Experience since the company’s inception in the 70s. Originally led by Mike Alfreds, they pioneered a style of minimalist theatre focussing on the actor as storyteller and largely eschewing set, props, costumes, lighting or sound effects. Their adaptations of The Arabian Nights and Bleak House paved the way for other, more spectacular literary epics like Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC and Peter Brook’s Mahabharata for the Bouffes du Nord.  

In the 90s the company  shifted focus with the arrival of Nancy Meckler and then Polly Teale as joint artistic directors and Liz Ranken as movement director: the content became mostly derived from novels with female protagonists like The Mill on the Floss and Anna Karenina; and the staging and performances became more overtly physical and expressive of characters’ repressed emotional states. I saw War and Peace (co-directed by Teale) at the National Theatre in London back in the 90s and it made a huge impression on me. I emailed them last year, and now I’ve been invited to watch the company at work as they make the transition from rehearsals to production.   

I love watching final runthroughs in the rehearsal room. There’s something miraculous about seeing a show emerge like a naked newborn babe, without all the trappings and layers that accrue during production week and in performance. One of the most thrilling afternoons I’ve spent in the theatre was at NIDA watching a final rehearsal/runthrough of the STC’s Uncle Vanya with Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett et al for the benefit of students and cast just before the production embarked on an international tour. Set, costumes and props had already been packed, so improvised substitutes were used, and the stage manager called imaginary scene change cues out loud. Watching Mermaid there’s a similar sense of purpose, focus and excitement as something comes into being, fully formed, alive and kicking for the first time.

Teale’s play is based on Andersen’s Little Mermaid as viewed through the lense of contemporary young women’s struggles with body-image, peer group pressure and the echo-chamber of social media. The script frames the original tale within a contemporary scenario involving a teenage girl (who is also narrates a version of the Andersen story), her parents and a network of unreliable friends. There’s an ensemble cast of eight, playing multiple roles, on (and under) a raised wooden stage. The show is travelling to regional theatres, where it will engage a local chorus of teenage girls at each venue. Education and community involvement is also a signature of the company’s work. 

I’m captivated by the staging of the Andersen story, especially the use of movement, music and chanting to create an emotional water-world. I’m less convinced by the contemporary frame-story, and slightly confused by the royal family and prince who seem to exist in both stories simultaneously. I’m also unconvinced and confused by the end, which replaces the cruelty of the original (in which the Mermaid like so many of Andersen’s protagonists dies and is ‘redeemed’ in an act of masochistic self-sacrifice) with an ecstatic merging between narrator and mermaid. I share my experience with Teale afterwards when she asks me if anything seems unclear. 

It’ll be interesting to see how the production shapes up in a week’s time when it opens at the Nottingham Playhouse. Meanwhile, I’m immensely grateful for being invited, and leave the studio with the sound of mermaids singing in my head.

*

Taking a break from theatre and storytelling, on Saturday night I venture out to Shoreditch Town Hall for a marathon retrospective of works entitled 21 Years by Charlotte Vincent and her eponymous Vincent Dance Theatre. The works on display hail from the 90s through to the present, and are performed simultaneously in various rooms between 7pm and midnight. They’re staged as durational works, with the audience free to come and go between them and the bar. 

I decide to take the bus down Holloway Road through Islington to the East End. I love riding upstairs in a London bus, ideally at the very front: the view is fantastic, and with no driver in sight you feel like you’re miraculously floating through the streets. I’ve been told by my daughters that Shoreditch is a cool place to visit, and sure enough, the pubs and clubs of Old Street are heaving with leather-clad hipsters. The Town Hall is a magnificent Victorian structure that’s now a contemporary performance venue. 

As her company name suggests, Vincent calls her work dance theatre rather than contemporary dance. To my untutored eyes, the former seems more connected with performance art, while the latter still appears rooted (however deviantly) in ballet. The self-titled dance theatre work I’ve seen shares with performance art a focus on the physical, psychological and social particularity of the performers (who are not necessarily dancers). It also stresses what might be called the actuality of the performance itself. This often involves a level of endurance on the part of the performers which is experienced vicariously by the audience as well. Repetition and duration are key motifs. There’s also a blurring between process and product, making and showing, so that the work seems to be created (and sometimes destroyed) before our eyes. Pina Bausch and Alain Platel – or closer to home Meryl Tankard and Tanja Liedtke – spring to mind. 

Underworld is a recent large-scale work for 8 performers which lasts for 2 hours and 15 minutes without a break and is staged in the cavernous Assembly Hall. Rows of wooden chairs fill the space facing the audience; the performers sit a table beyond them, and after a while begin to enter the field of chairs, first singly, then in pairs and finally en masse. The four men wear dark suits; the four women, dark cardigans and dresses; all are barefoot. They leap over chairs, lift and chase each other, sit, pray, wrestle, play and gradually deconstruct the space: after about an hour, the chairs have been piled up in a huge pile; an hour later, they’ve all been neatly replaced in rows. A haunting soundtrack by minimalist composer Gavin Bryars fades in and out, featuring slow brass chord sequences, distant bells and a choir; it’s vaguely ecclesiastical, at times funereal, at others almost apocalyptic. One of the dancers also plays the violin. Lighting changes are few and far between, slow and momentous. 

Audience members come and go, but I find myself mesmerised (as often happens for me in durational works). The dancers are utterly focussed, immensely skilled and intensely committed: each one a distinct individual uniquely devoted to their task while constantly supporting the others physically or attentively. For my part, I feel as if I’m observing a kind of post-religious rite, or a community in the process of being dismembered or reassembled: a work of negative theology, perhaps, or a search for a lost or longed-for utopia.

The work ends and I head off to another room. Look At Me Now Mummy is a solo work created in 2008 for Polish perfomer Aurora Lubos, a long-standing Vincent collaborator, after the birth of her first child. It’s a 40-minute work, and she’s been performing it on repeat for the last 2 hours, but it looks like she’s been living with it for the past 8 years. The room is a mess: strewn with food, clothes, props, kitchen utensils and appliances. Unlike the performers in Underground, who were consistently absorbed in themselves and each other, Lubos acknowledges the audience continuously from start to finish. It’s a clown act, with a desperate edge, about keeping up domestic appearances. At one point, she puts the bundle representing the baby in the microwave and slams the door. 

Downstairs in a smaller room, Vincent’s 1998 short film Glasshouse is screening, also on a loop. It features Vincent herself and Richard Lowden from Forced Entertainment, and is tightly shot and edited by filmmaker Robert Hardy. A man and a woman have an abstract but violently charged encounter in a house of glass in a rural setting. The looped screening adds to the nightmarish sense of eternal struggle. Like Look at Me Mummy there’s a relentless bleakness to this early work; the more recent Underworld is similarly relentless, not least in the demands it places on the performers, but there’s a sense of collective reconciliation, if not exactly hope. 

I leave Shoreditch feeling inspired, and float back to Islington on the bus. This was a program of work I’d be thrilled to see at a major international festival in Australia; here its audience and marketing suggests something more like a local fringe/independent night out. Tomorrow I’m catching up with a dear friend I’ve known since school in Melbourne. On Monday I begin a 5-day workshop with another legendary company, Complicité, at London Metropolitan University on Holloway Road around the corner from my garden flat.

It’s good to be back.

*


Postcard from London [2] 

Complicité Workshop, A View from the Bridge, Antigone, Lippy, Happy Days, How to Hold Your Breath, The Indian Queen




On Monday morning, I head off for my first day of workshops with Complicité at London Metropolitan University in Islington, just around the corner from my Airbnb flat. I’ve got a busy week ahead of me. The workshops were only announced a few weeks before I left Perth; luckily they coincide with my first week in London, but I’d already booked tickets well in advance to a raft of matinee and evening shows. So I’m going to have to miss the afternoon workshops, which turns out to be a good thing in terms of my physical energy. 

Complicité were formed in the 80s as a multidisciplinary ensemble of theatre makers influenced by the teachings of Jacques Lecoq and led by artistic director Simon McBurney. Their productions are often technically spectacular works of visual theatre. I saw their adaptation of John Berger’s story The Three Lives of Lucie Chabrol when it came to the Melbourne Festival in the 90s. It’s another work of ensemble storytelling theatre that marked me profoundly.

The workshop is led by Joyce Henderson, a longstanding associate with the company who also trained at Lecoq. It’s called ‘Familiar Laughter’ and introduces some standard Complicité techniques in relation to the use of physicality, space and objects, as well as focusing more specifically on humour and clowning. There are about twenty participants, about half of whom are from London, the others being from Italy, France, Spain and the US. I’m the only Australian.

We work from 10am till 1pm Monday to Friday, and we’re encouraged to bring streetclothes as well as the usual actor’s rehearsal gear, as Joyce wants to focus on staging the physical comedy of everyday life. We’ve also been asked to bring a short sequence to show the class, using real props (no pretending or miming) and recreating a mundane routine that might involve thinking we’ve lost something or talking to ourselves (without acknowledging the audience). 

I won’t go into detail about the workshop or how it unfolds over the week. Suffice to say that Joyce is a warm and supportive leader and the participants are intriguingly diverse in terms of age, experience and background. I notice a cultural and artistic divide between the English-speaking and Mediterranean participants. The former are better at playing the comedy of embarrassment and losing face, and favour a more internalized style of performance; the latter are more physically expressive and even demonstrative, tend to use their whole bodies and make eye contact with the audience. 

*

That night I go to the Wyndham Theare to see the revival of Ivo Van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge for The Young Vic. Van Hove is the artistic director of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and is now one of the leading auteur-directors on the international stage. I saw his multi-media staging of the Cassavetes film Opening Night with the Toneelgroep at the Melbourne Festival some years ago and was blown away; and I still regret not being able to see their epic version of Shakespeare’s Roman Plays in Adelaide and Sydney last year. In fact I’m on a bit of a Van Hove mini-tour as part of my Fellowship travels. I’m seeing his new production of Antigone at The Barbican tomorrow night; and next month I’m seeing an earlier production of Othello at the Toneelgroep’s home venue in Amsterdam where it’s now part of the repertoire. 

A View from the Bridge was a sell-out sensation at The Young Vic last year. It’s being revived with the same cast, and the thrust staging of the original venue is being recreated with an interesting twist. The Wyndham is a classic old proscenium arch West End theatre, but they’ve added rows of seating onstage, flanking the action on both sides. I’m sitting in the front stage-left corner, in full view of the auditorium (as are the three or four rows behind me and those on the opposite side of the stage). However, there’s a kind of mini-stage in front of us, corralled by low walls on three sides (the need for which will become clear at the climax of the show). It’s temporarily sealed off by solid black screens, so we’re gathered around a black cube, until the screens fly up and the show begins.

Van Hove regularly collaborates with resident Toneelgroep set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, whose work is integral to the overall aesthetic. This juxtoposes abstract, dynamic, minimalist yet monumental staging with an almost cinematic verité style of performance. It’s a juxtaposition I’m familiar with in Australia from productions by Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone. Costumes reflect the contemporary world of the audience rather than the fictional world of the play. Stylistically however they serve as a bridge between the naturalism of the performances and the minimalism of the set. In this case, the actors wear contemporary streetclothes, but have bare feet. Set and props are also minimal, and the blocking sits somewhere between naturalism and abstraction. There’s a great instance when a solitary chair is brought onstage by the narrator specifically for an isolated moment which thus becomes symbolically heightened. Towards the end, the narrator begins reciting stage directions as the action mounts to its violent climax. A Brechtian sense of estrangement and detachment adds to the feeling of inevitability. Overall, there’s an almost neo-classical sense of ritual which illuminates the play, stripping back the veneer of tradition to reveal its greatness anew. 

This economy of means is however drowned in auteurial (indeed arterial) symbolism when blood begins raining down from the fly tower and drenches the actors at the moment of the final killing (no knife in sight); it’s now all too clear why the stage required a retaining wall. After the simplicity of what came before, I find this a clichéd and disappointing coup de théatre. I’m thrilled however by the contained energy and emotional integrity of the acting, especially Mark Strong as Eddie and Luke Norris as Rodolpho. If only they’d been allowed to complete the job.

*

My misgivings about Van Hove’s auteurial excesses increase the following night when I catch up with two old friends to see his new Antigone. I’m already sceptical because it’s a multinational co-production (English-French-German-Dutch-Luxemburgian). It also stars Juliette Binoche, whom I find a little insipid on screen and fear won’t be up to the challenge of the role or the medium. Finally, The Barbican itself is a rather forbidding venue (as its name implies): difficult to find, unwelcoming to enter or negotiate internally, and (like so many multi-functional arts centres) lacking in warmth, personality or a clear identity. The main theatre is huge, and although I’ve seen some great work here, I’ve never yet found a seat that made me feel connected with the action onstage.

My fears about the show are borne out: like other screen actors I’ve seen onstage, Binoche shouts, screams and over-emotionalises. I’m also a little distracted by her overly fashionable Parisian shoes. The other actors look as if they’ve been directed to underplay everything; or perhaps they’re just hoping to avoid anyone noticing the egg on their faces. In any case they mostly look indifferent or bored – never a good look in Greek tragedy. Creon begins well, in the manner of a complacent Eurocrat, but then degenerates into a two-dimensional villain, which kills the play just as surely as Antigone being portrayed as a ranting adolescent. For my money, Hegel’s analysis of Antigone as a clash between the ethics of state and family is not a bad place to start if you want some genuine dramatic conflict; and I’ve always thought that the play is actually Creon’s tragedy, not Antigone’s, as he’s the one who undergoes change, experiences insight and suffers a downfall. Otherwise the play’s effectively over before it starts.

More fundamentally, the whole production is vitiated by self-consciousness. Apart from the acting style, there’s a more or less continuous sonic and musical underscoring which leaves nothing to the imagination. An extended quotation from a Shostakovich String Quartet at one point only underscores the hollowness of what’s happening onstage. In A View from a Bridge, this device was less of a problem: the occasional distorted bursts of Faure’s Requiem at least provided a counterpoint to the domesticity of the action and underlined its unconscious ritual nature. In the case of Antigone, perhaps a selection of entries from the Eurovision Song Contest would have been more apt. To make matters worse, there’s a huge blurred slow-motion back-projection of what looks like a crowd in a contemporary war-zone. It’s more interesting than what’s happening onstage, but entirely gratuitious. As for the new translation by celebrated classicist-poet Anne Carson: self-conscious doesn’t begin to describe it. When Creon accuses Tiresias at one point of being corrupted by ‘the profit-motive’, my companion laughs at the bad pun, but I’m less inclined to be generous. 

Afterwards we have a discussion about why contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are almost invariably so bad. I wonder if we lack a sense of the sacred to match the world of the plays. Wesley Enoch’s Black Medea came the closest I’ve seen to embodying the clash of cultures, laws and principles that play enacts (not unlike Antigone); but if you don’t believe in the power of ancestors, gods or a moral cosmos, then Greek tragedy makes no sense (the same is arguably true of Shakespearian tragedy too). One of my friends argues on the contrary that we just need to do the plays, simply and truthfully, without dressing them up, or treating them like holy writ. I like the sound of that. 

*



On Wednesday after my morning Complicité workshop I catch the Tube to Waterloo for a matinee at The Young Vic. As soon as I arrive at the theatre, I feel like I’m on home ground. The venue, café, staff and crowd all feel relaxed, alive and kicking; I could be at an alternative mainstage theatre in Australia like Belvoir Street or The Malthouse. 

I’m seeing a guest show from Dublin, Lippy, which had rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. On a whim, I ask if there are any tickets to tonight’s performance of Happy Days with Juliet Stevensen, directed by Natalie Abrahami, an associate director with the company – another big hit last year which is now being revived. There’s a seat left in the back corner of the stalls, but it’s an intimate wrap-around thrust theatre, so I should be fine. I’m more than happy to spend the rest of the day and evening here, and it turns out to be a good decision.

Lippy is a devised piece by Irish company Dead Centre. It’s based on an actual incident: three sisters and their aunt who barricaded themselves in their house fifteen years ago and starved themselves to death without any clear motive. To describe it as a work of documentary theatre however would be a misnomer; in fact it’s more like an anti-documentary, since it explores the unreliability and even the impossibility of comprehension, at first playfully and then with a mounting sense of terror. The show ‘starts’ with a mock-post-show-Q&A in front of a screen with a clownish facilitator (who is also the show’s creator and co-director, Bush Moukarzel) and a member of the cast (David Heap) about the ‘show’ we’ve just ‘seen’. The actor says he was cast on the basis of his ability to lip-read (one of the references of the show’s title), which he claims to have employed on politice investigations, including reviewing CCTV footage of the women in question. He then ‘demonstrates’ this ability in a bizarrely inaccurate way. 

At this point the tone changes, and we go down a surrealist rabbit-hole. The screen behind them turns out to be a scrim, revealing the depths of the stage beyond, which now becomes a distorted representation of the room where the women died. The next section of the show is a slow movement piece with an ominous sound-score involving four new performers, who initially appear in hazmat suits and helmets as if investigating a contaminated site, before removing this outer layer to reveal themselves as ghost-like avatars of the women who died. 

For the final section of the show, the scrim becomes a screen again, on which is projected a close-up shot of a mouth wearing heavy lipstick (referencing the title again). The mouth proceeds to deliver a Beckett-like monologue by Mark O’Halloran (clearly based on the Irish master’s Not I), which could perhaps be another distorted representation of one of the dying women’s thoughts.

This last section loses a little traction for me, but overall I find Lippy inventive, unpredictable and thrilling. I enjoy the interrogation of narrative and representation, especially in the context of a typically sensationalized news story. I also enjoy the abrupt changes of mood and form, and the intelligent sound design by Adam Welsh (who also figures onstage in the comic prologue) – including the use of amplified lip-synching to create a disturbing uncertainty between live and pre-recorded speech. In fact lip-reading and lip-synching ultimately become metaphors for the deceptiveness of theatre itself. The show also turns out to be the perfect hors d’oeuvre for Happy Days. 

I’ve long been a fan of Juliet Stevenson, and here she’s an enchanting, frequently hilarious and ultimately devastating Winnie. She instinctively understands the level of clowning that Beckett’s theatre relies on (and without which it becomes obscure, pretentious and dull). She also has technique to burn, but more importantly, a rare level of emotional connection that’s transmitted by her every gesture, facial expression and above all her voice. In this case she’s otherwise physically immobilized, which only lends her performance an extra intensity. 

The spectacular set design by Vicki Mortimer features a vast slope of scree and sand in which Winnie is embedded (as Beckett specified, up her waist in Act 1, and her neck in Act 2).  It appears to be advancing towards us and collapsing like a wave over her head. When we enter the theatre, the set is in full view and fills most of the three-dimensional space; Winnie is already in place and covered by a kind of tent which is removed by stage-hands just before the show starts; she stays in place (with adjustments) at interval; and is still buried up her neck for the curtain call, remaining there until we leave. 

Beckett’s catastrophic scenarios lend themselves to whatever era they’re written or performed in: WW2 and the Holocaust; the cold-war threat of nuclear annihilation; Sarajevo; and now the immanent catastrophe of climate change. By the end of the show I’m weeping, and find it difficult to leave. The audience is packed with school kids and teachers, who seem similarly mesmerized. All in all, I go home feeling that theatre in London is alive and well at The Young Vic. 

*

I have the opposite experience at The Royal Court the following afternoon. Venue, audience, play and production all feel stuck in the past. I’m thinking of the company’s heydays: in the 50s and 60s, when it premiered the post-war ‘new wave’ of British theatre represented by John Osborne and Arnold Wesker; or more recently in the 90s, with a ‘second wave’ of socially provocative playwrights like Mark Ravenhill or Sarah Kane. Now it feels like the venue and company are in serious need of a change of direction and a renewal of identity.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge on the basis of a single production, but How to Hold Your Breath – written by Zinnie Harris and directed by the company’s new artistic director Vicky Featherstone (formerly of the National Theatre of Scotland) – has all the hallmarks of a play hastily thrown together to address a raft of contemporary issues (European economic collapse, asylum seekers, epidemic diseases, fear of intimacy, individualism, self-help) without a properly developed form or process to back it up. The staging is repetitive, while the tone seems to hover between comedy of manners, domestic drama, political satire, drama of ideas, metaphysical tragedy and Strindbergian dream-play.  The actors struggle to hold it together (in particular a valiant Maxine Peake in the lead role, who remains onstage for almost two hours) but seem fundamentally disconnected from what they’re saying. As soon as they walk onstage and start shouting their lines in an intimate bedroom scene, I know I’m in for a hard time. It’s like watching a social-realist version of a bad West End farce. 

*



It’s another story again that night at the English National Opera, with Peter Sellars’s radical re-imagining of Purcell’s Indian Queen. The Coliseum is a luxuriously grand, vast Edwardian theatre, and the ENO has a splendid orchestra and chorus, here conducted by early music specialist Laurence Cummings and incorporating lutes, viols and other period instruments. The original opera consists of a 50-minute musical fragment and a museum-piece libretto based on an exotic pastoral play by Dryden. Sellars has ditched the libretto and replaced it with spoken material from a Nicaraguan novel about the Spanish conquest and genocide of the Mayans. It focusses on the story of three women: the wife of a Spanish governor, his Mayan concubine (the ‘Indian Queen’) and their mixed-race daughter (who narrates the story). He’s also extended the score to three-and-a-half hours of Purcell’s most sublime songs and choral anthems, interspersed with some of his most sparkling theatre music. In the tradition of baroque opera and court masques, he’s also added four dancers who represent Mayan gods and perform a series of indigenous creation myths. The whole thing is staged in spectacularly minimalist style with huge backdrops painted by Mexican-US graffiti artist Gronk which are raised and lowered to designate scene changes and otherwise surrounded by empty space. 

It sounds like a mish-mash, but the integrity of Sellars’s vision almost holds it together. The music is glorious and the singing sublime (especially sopranos Julia Bullock as the Indian Queen and Lucy Crowe as Donna Isabel, with counter-tenors Vince Yi and Luthando Qave as Mayan trickster twin deities also outstanding). Sellars’s trademark use of formalised movement and gesture suits the heiratic nature of the action, music and stage design perfectly – and together with the backdrops creates a unified pictorial language. The whole thing resembles a kind of mural that has come to life. I’m less convinced by the spoken narration; and the succession of (mostly slow and sorrowful) laments and anthems ultimately fails to sustain a totally satisfying musical or dramatic arc. It’s more like a three-hour oratorio or liturgical composition, but even as such it lacks the variety and coherence of a unified work by Bach, Handel, Monteverdi or indeed Purcell himself. Nevertheless, I leave the theatre deeply moved by the music, the singing, the staging and the story. As with with Happy Days, this is a bold re-invention of a classic that speaks to our times.

*

Postcard from Nottingham and Stratford




Mermaid at the Nottingham Playhouse; Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Found at the RSC


On Friday morning after the final Complicité workshop, I head to Euston to catch the 2.15 to Nottingham. A week after seeing the final rehearsal of Shared Experience’s Mermaid, I’m going to opening night at the Nottingham Playhouse. 

When I arrive it’s colder than London, and feels bleaker too. There’s less evidence of cultural diversity, and despite the famous castle and obligatory statue of Robin Hood, the streets and architecture have a rather forbidding air. In fact the town is traditionally something of a bastion of authoritarian reaction. Apart from being associated with the tyrannical King John and the notorious Sherriff, it was a Royalist stronghold for Charles I, and the castle itself was razed to the ground after his execution. Later the palace built in its place by the Duke of Newcastle was burnt down after he opposed the passage of the Reform Act. So perhaps it’s no wonder the place gives me a bit of a chill.

I check into my hotel and wend my way up the cobbled street past the castle for for fish and chips and a real ale at a rather grand but friendly local corner pub. It’s packed with a Friday-night middle-class crowd – as is the Playhouse just up the road. In the foyer I catch sight of the show’s writer-director Polly Teale, who welcomes me warmly and tells me there have been a few changes since the runthrough I saw last week. As I settle into my seat, I overhear someone behind me saying their daughter is in the onstage chorus of local teenage girls. 

In the event, the show is much as I remember it. Certainly there’s an added pleasure in seeing it fleshed out in production; but perhaps inevitably some of the immediacy and freshness of the rehearsal room is gone. The performances are broader, partly in response to the larger venue and audience, more elaborate set and costumes, and busier lighting and sound. The chorus are briefly involved in the opening teenage party scene, but otherwise remain sitting and watching below the platform-stage on either side. Their presence lends an extra dimension to the story, but they don’t contribute significantly to the action.

In terms of content I find I still have trouble with the contemporary scenes, which feel a little token. The performer playing the teenage narrator is left physically high and dry during the Andersen scenes, which she continues to narrate but which occupy the bulk of the play. A simpler solution, it seems to me, would have been for her to play the Mermaid as well – much as one feels Andersen did in his imagination (and perhaps also as a storyteller-performer). The royal family scenes have become more cartoon-like in performance, perhaps because they straddle both worlds, contemporary and fairytale, so it’s unclear what kind of genre they belong to. To be sure, there’s a pathos to the character of the Prince when he goes off to a modern war (perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan) and returns traumatized. Dramaturgically however it feels like another story, which after interval threatens to eclipse that of the Mermaid herself. In fact the play now ends with the Prince suffering an emotional breakdown and being dragged offstage, while the narrator finally unites with the Mermaid, as if both stories have merged in a kind of delirium shared by all three central characters. For me, however, the change of form comes too late in the piece to be dramatically satisfying. In fact, I prefer Andersen’s original ending, for all its unfashionable moralism and underlying perversity. No doubt, the change of medium from literature to theatre demands a corresponding change of form; but as for the content, I can’t help feeling that – whether for political, social, cultural or artistic reasons – one ‘improves’ on a great (if twisted) original at one’s peril.

*

On Saturday morning I get the train via Birmingham to Stratford-Upon-Avon. I’m meeting up with an old friend for a Shakespeare marathon: a matinee of Love’s Labours Lost followed by an evening performance of Much Ado About Nothing – which for the purposes of this season has been redubbed Love’s Labours Won. It’s known that Shakespeare wrote a ‘lost’ play with this title; RSC artistic director Gregory Doran believes that this play is Much Ado and has programmed them together accordingly. They’ve been conceived as a single event in two parts, with the same director (Chris Luscombe), designer (Simon Higlett), composer/musical director (Nigel Hess), and ensemble cast (led by Edward Bennett as Berowne/Benedick and Michelle Terry as Rosaline/Beatrice). The set is a grand Edwardian country house (modelled on an actual stately home, Charlecote Park, just a few miles from Stratford itself) just before and just after the First World War. It’s a clever idea (and piece of marketing), and I can’t resist checking it out.

Love’s Labours Lost is one of my favourite plays. It’s not often performed, perhaps because of its highly formal and even rarified nature. In form and content it’s related to the Sonnets, with which it’s thought to be contemporary (both even suggestively share a ‘Dark Lady’). More generally, the play is a satire on the limits of language (including professions of academic learning, vows of chastity and faith) in the face of the disruptive power of love. 

Much Ado is a very different kettle of fish, and in my view, despite some superficial similarities between the two central relationships, linking the two plays together on this basis is drawing a long bow. However the idea of using the advent of war as a fulcrum is inspired. Love’s Labours notoriously ends with a sudden change of mood from comedy to sorrow with the announcement of the king’s death and the postponement of marriage between the lovers; while Much Ado is premised on the billeting of soldiers – and more profoundly by a kind of universal mistrust between men and women (and indeed between men and men) which is not dissimilar from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

In the event, Love’s Labours proves to be a brilliant production of an unfairly neglected play. Staging and performances are witty, touching and occasionally hilarious, but maintain an integrity that makes the mood-change at the end all the more effective. When the men make their final exit in uniform, we know the holocaust that awaits them, and the implications it has for their promise to return in a year’s time. When Berowne utters his last line –  ‘that’s too long for a play’ – there’s scarcely a dry eye in the house, even onstage. It’s also the final performance of both shows, which adds to the sense of poignancy. The whole thing is beautifully scored by Hess, who conducts a live accompaniment ranging from autumnal Elgarian plangeny to sparkling Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta. 

After such a strong precursor, Much Ado perhaps surprisingly proves to be less effective. In my opinion it’s a trickier play than many productions give it credit for, this one included; in particular there’s an underlying bitterness that can’t be accommodated by adopting a generalised tone of sentimental pantomime, as here. I’m struck by how the same actors (especially Bennett as Benedick) fail to deliver performances that match the integrity of their work in the earlier play (Terry as Beatrice is more successful at embodying Beatrice’s underlying rage) In general, it’s as if the whole show baulks at the implications of its own post-war conceit. Outstanding performances of the night for me come from David Horovitch as a hilarious and touching pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labours and an understated and vulnerable father/uncle Leonato in Much Ado. 

Overall, I’m won over by the tiered thrust configuration of the recently renovated Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and by the consistency and clarity of playing style from the ensemble. To a greater degree than any mainstream company I’ve seen in Australia (including Bell Shakespeare), every actor seems to know what they’re doing and to be ‘on the same page’. 

More reflectively, I’m also struck by the different meaning that the First World War seems to have for an English audience, as opposed to an Australian one. There’s no false invocation of national glory, pride or rite of passage. There’s just a sense of damage, futility and loss. As the ‘fantastical Spaniard’ Don Armado says in the last line of Love’s Labours: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.’ It’s a sobering reminder of the dividing line drawn by death – and all the more so by the putative ‘war to end all wars’, which instead ushered in a new era of mass annihilation.

*

Postcard from London and Glasgow (via Berlin)




It’s six weeks since I left London and headed north. Three days in Glasgow, five weeks in Orkney, then back down to London and across the Channel by rail to Brussels, Amsterdam and finally Berlin – where I’m now sitting in a Kreuzberg café called Bastard just around the corner from my Airbnb (an airy second-floor bedroom in an old apartment block near Görlitzer Park).

There’s a message on the wall nearby that says: ‘The brain is desperate for an available emptiness to house its clutter. Put it here.’ Hm. Perhaps this Postcard will serve the same purpose. 



There’s another piece of street-art right next to the front door of my apartment block featuring an image of Pinocchio smoking a spliff and sporting an enormous phallus. I’m not sure where that fits in, but I’ll put it here too, and get on with my story.



Where to begin? And what to tell? Let me try to clear my head and retrace my steps.


1. Goya to Pollini


After my weekend in Nottingham and Stratford, I spent my last night in my Airbnb apartment in Islington, hugged my tearful Indian host-grandmother goodbye the next morning and deposited my luggage at Euston. I spent my last afternoon in London at a exhibition of Goya’s ‘Witches and Old Women’ album of drawings in the Courtault Gallery at Somerset House, and my last evening at a recital by Maurizo Pollini playing Schumann and Chopin at the Royal Festival Hall.

Goya’s late drawings are deeply personal. By this stage he was completely deaf and had largely withdrawn into his own world. Creating largely for himself, he was possessed by fantastical images, somewhere on a road that stretches from Bosch and Breughel to surrealism and beyond. On the edge of reason and at the outer reaches of humanity, they draw us into a miniature but painstakingly detailed universe of horror, ecstasy and pity that whispers to our fascination with the monstrous in all its forms. 


Somerset House is one of my favourite places in London. Housed in a magnificent complex of neo-classical buildings situated between The Strand and the Embankment, the Courtault Gallery itself – with its winding stairways, intimate rooms and fine permanent collection – is slightly off the tourist track and somehow manages to make you feel like you’re visiting an eccentric uncle and viewing his private heirlooms.  Here I spent a peaceful couple of hours in the company of Goya and his monsters, along with the small but superb selection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on show from the permanent collection. Finally I wandered out onto the Embankment and past the stream of evening traffic across Waterloo Bridge to the splendid brutalism of The Southbank Centre.

I had my doubts about going to Pollini that night. Back in the early 80s when I was a student and came down to London from Hogwarts regularly to hear him play, he was in his prime as a virtuoso celebrated (and sometimes denigrated) for his relentless objectivity, fearsome technique and fearless championing of modern and contemporary composers (Bartok, Stravinksy, Schönberg, Webern, Boulez, Nono) alongside thrillingly unsentimental interpretations of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and the late sonatas of Beethoven. Now however I’d be seeing a man in his late 70s who’d recently been ill and would surely be diminished at least in terms of sheer physical prowess.

In the event, I needn’t have worried. A stooped old man in tails tottered across the stage, nodded a few perfunctory bows, sat down and without further ado launched into Schumann’s gentle Arabesque followed by an uncompromising voyage through the rocky straits of the Kreisleriana. The technique may not have been what it was, at least in Schumann’s more manic passages, but the penetrating intelligence and sense of architectural command more than made up for any occasional imperfections. After interval came Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Pollini totally owns these works (the pellucid clarity of his 70s recording for DG remains unsurpassed for me); but tonight was if anything even more revealing, without sacrificing the eagle-eyed overview of each piece in relation to the whole. After a shattering final Prelude, he tottered back on for three encores: an equally impassioned ‘Revolutionary’ Etude (the aged eagle spreading his wings and perhaps reminding us of his former activities playing concerts with Abbado for workers in factories), a tender Nocturne and finally the dramatic 3rd Scherzo. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Still humming with revolutionary fervour, I made my way back to Euston, collected my luggage and boarded the Caledonian sleeper for Glasgow. Securing an archmair in the dining car (which felt more like a well-upholstered and well-serviced hotel lobby), I ordered my first miniature bottle of Highland Park and settled back to watch the lights of nameless English towns slide past and vanish into the night.


2. Buzzcut Live Art Festival


Next morning I woke up at Glasgow Central, where a different world awaited me – or rather, a series of different worlds, one opening onto another like Glaswegian-Chinese boxes. I was here for three days, staying at another Airbnb apartment in a classic old terrace in the city’s West End near Hillhead Tube Station, and attending Buzzcut, a live art festival co-curated by Nick Anderson and Rosana Cade (with whom I did a workshop at Live Art Camp in Melbourne last November). The festival is housed at the Pearce Institute, a community centre in Govan, which is itself a severely run-down working-class district just south of the Clyde. Rosana and Nick have made the event as inclusive as possible, given its limited funding and resources. Participating artists aren’t paid, but are provided with free board and lodging (mostly in people’s houses); there’s good, cheap, locally sourced and prepared food (including delicious street-curries and wraps) available onsite in the Macleod Hall; and audiences can attend the rolling sequence of performances in multiple spaces throughout the Institute (and at a few off-site venues) every afternoon and evening for free, or by donation (on the basis of ‘pay what you can afford’). The idea is to generate a spirit of collaboration and community between visiting and local artists and the broader local population; the result feels like a non-stop five-day open-house party. I was only there for three of those days, which in the event was enough for me, as I barely left the building (apart from the odd off-site excursion) except to go home on the Tube every night to get some sleep, have breakfast the next morning and then head back for another afternoon and evening of continuous live art.

Ah, live art! Dear Reader, bear with me on this. We’re talking everything from awkward five-minute one-on-one mutual meditation sessions while seated in chairs facing opposite each other; to an endearingly guided tour of personal belongings displayed in a tent as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’; to an ongoing installation-collection of recyclable waste generated during the festival and carefully washed and sorted on the floor; to an extended lyrical public confession about personal and artistic failure in a vacant lot outside the Institute, before digging a hole in the ground in which the body of a cello was then ritually smashed and burned, and its ashes summarily dumped in the Clyde. More elaborate works included a visual essay-performance about post-war UK architecture and the invasion of public by private space, with projected archival and home-made footage accompanied by an industrial soundtrack and spoken commentary by the two artists, who had the text fed to them through mp3 players and repeated it mechanically through microphones while standing motionless against the projection wall at the back of the stage; and a vigorous session of luridly-coloured paint-gargling-and-spitting on various items of furniture in a courtyard, including a wardrobe which was then violently demolished and a mattress and bed which were finally doused in petrol and set on fire (staining, smashing and burning things seemed to be something of a leitmotif in the live art world).

I spent some time alone in a darkened room watching a topless man digitally scanning his torso in various contorted positions, and then digitally cropping and projecting close-up images of his skin, body-hair and blemishes on the wall, while a luminous message projected onto his back proclaimed:

Dreams that feel like nightmares when I wake
This body has been an inverted shell
Skin inside, tight against the heart
And miles away from a touch 

In other words, there was a surfeit of self: self-absorption, self-exposure, self-dramatization, self-recording, self-entrapment, and what I felt was a generalized and symptomatic confusion between art and life. Perhaps that’s the point of ‘live art’ – as opposed to all that presumably ‘dead art’ out there that works and deals with something other than the artists themselves as subject and medium. Nevertheless I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘self’ here being endlessly exposed and recorded was a fundamentally narcissistic and ultimately empty one. Certainly it was a far cry from the self-portraits of Dürer or Rembrandt, or even the monologues of William Yang, which in their different ways present the self as an objective subject or even a mirror held up to the world, rather than a subjective object or narcissistic ego endlessly reflecting back on itself in imaginary frustration.

My personal favourites in fact were two works that didn’t seem quite so hermetically sealed in the physical and psychical skin of the isolated individual. The first, Blood on the Streets, was a late-night off-site performance-lecture in a barber’s shop in Partick about the history of bloodletting as a medical practice. It was jointly delivered by a cheerful and winsome young artist (Jamie Lewis Hadley) and his equally cheerful and winsome young GP-assistant (Belinda McFenty), who then proceeded (after some nerve-wracking minutes of difficulty finding the right vein) to drain him of a bag of blood, while he sat in the barber’s chair smiling and talking with his eyes averted to avoid fainting. Here it was something about the juxtaposition of setting and subject-matter in conjunction with the artist’s body, reflective discourse and implicit consciousness-of-self as a social construct (there was no explicit mention of HIV, but Hadley has spoken in interviews about the fact that as a gay man he’s not allowed to donate blood) which transcended the limits of narcissism and gave the work real content. On a visceral level, it was also genuinely confronting; in fact almost impossible to watch – and at the same time impossible not to watch, with my eyes only partially averted.



The second and for me outstanding work was 4D Cinema by London-based Japanese artist Mamoru IriguchiMamoru is a disarmingly modest and even clumsy stage performer, and the first half of this show was a charmingly gentle DIY multimedia drag-act, in which he ‘channelled’ Marlene Dietrich by putting on high-heeled shoes and a huge home-made box-screen over his head, on which black and white footage and photos of Dietrich, her world and her films were projected, while Mamoru’s own face remained visible through a hole in the centre of the box. This pantomime was accompanied by a hilariously deadpan account of ‘her’ life, in which biographical and thematic elements – Berlin, Hollywood, cinema, cabaret, World War II, performing for the troops, the live shows in Vegas, touring, addiction, falling off the stage, the apartment in Paris – seemed familiar yet strangely inverted, so that she was born in Paris, had her stage career before her film career, and died in Berlin. The formal and indeed ontological ‘reveal’ came in the second half of the show, when Mamoru replayed live video and audio footage of the first half of the show backwards (including the sound of his own voice, and – even more disturbingly – our own laughter), with live performance and video components now re-integrated within a single frame, complete with subtitles retelling the story of Marlene’s life, but this time ‘correctly’ in reverse. The effect was at once one of logical and psychological reparation (at last everything made sense) and profound loss (as her history became that of the last century, including the rupture between live performance and film, the real and the virtual, presence and absence, life and death, all tellingly demarcated by the catastrophe of World War Two. The result was an unexpectedly profound meditation on the paradoxes of time in the context of performance and its recording. It was also the most sophisticated use of multimedia I can remember seeing onstage. ‘Live art’ indeed!

3. Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre





By Friday, however, I’d seen enough live art (especially of the confessional kind) to last me a lifetime. I decided to wag the afternoon and head into central Glasgow to see the city’s best-kept theatrical secret and arguably most exotic hybrid art-form: the Russian ‘kinetic theatre’ housed in the Trongate 103 Art Centre that goes under the name of Sharmanka. It's Russian slang for ‘barrel organ’, and the joint work of Russian sculptor Eduard Bersudsky, director Tatyana Jakovskya and her son Sergey Jakovsky, who designs the lighting and sound. 

How to do justice to this unique and extraordinary body of work? In brief, Bersudsky began making mechanical sculptures of carved and painted wood, scrap metal, discarded wheels, cogs, levers, pulleys and improvised electrical circuits during the Kruschev ‘thaw’ of the 50s and 60s in the former Soviet Union. The wooden figures themselves owe something to the German Expressionist sculptor Barlach, and before him the tradition of folk and religious (especially Gothic and Romanesque) sculpture, with its angels and devils, saints and sinners, sacred animals and imaginary beasts. Bersudsky’s work however consists of ensembles featuring multiple figures derived from literature, folklore, history, politics and his own wild imagination; and instead of being religious (at least in any traditional sense), their spirit is one of rebellious and profane fantasy, with that peculiarly Russian and perhaps also Eastern and Central European Jewish flavour I associate with Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Bulgakov (especially the latter’s great novel The Master and Margarita, which is the explicit subject of one of the sculptures). 

The works are displayed around the walls of a large room upstairs at Trongate, and include some earlier kinetic sculptures made in the Soviet Union under difficult and sometimes clandestine conditons together with more recent works made since Eduard and Tatyana emigrated to Scotland in the 90s. At designated performance times each day – I was the sole audience-member on that Friday afternoon, which made the experience even more bizarre – the lights go out and then one by one the ‘kinemats’ (as they’re also called) are illuminated and begin to move, each accompanied by its own carefully chosen musical soundtrack. It’s a deeply moving, darkly humorous and at times disturbingly macabre procession of human folly, hope, depravity and yearning, and when it ended fifty mintutes later I was spellbound. Like Goya, Bersudsky is an artist whose vision embraces even the most appalling atrocities and preposterous extremes of his era and his species, and yet seems to say: this is what we are, this is what we are capable of, so laugh at us, and weep for us, because you, too, are one of us, a mannequin of desire, endlessly animated by the cogs and wheels of biology and history. 

*

Early the following day, I was on the train again, being borne away by another set of mechanical cogs and wheels: leaving Glasgow and heading further north to Inverness (via Perth, as it happens), where I’d be connecting with a smaller train through the Highlands to Thurso, before finally catching the ferry to Orkney. There I’d be spending the next five weeks on a much bigger and more inner adventure: doing a series of workshops on voice, movement and Shakespeare with the formidable Kristin Linklater. 

But that’s a subject for another Postcard.

*

Postcard from Berlin 

Kreuzberg/Museum Bergruen/Theatertreffen/Castellucci at the Schaubühne





My train pulled into Berlin Ostbahnhof on May 1: not the most convenient date to arrive in Berlin, as I soon discovered. None of the taxis would take me to Kreuzberg because of the festivities and riots that traditionally take place there on May Day, and when I boarded the U-Bahn it was crammed with partygoers and wannabe-revolutionaries. It took me most of the afternoon to get to my Airbnb apartment, which was ideally situated between Görlitzer Park and the cafés and clubs on the Landwehr Canal. It turned out to be in the thick of the action, with music, dancing and police cars cruising the normally quiet tree-lined street.

Here I met up with a friend from Stuttgart and we joined the crowds. We ended up at a rambling Southern Gothic canal-side bar which was like something out of a Rodriguez/Tarantino movie. There was even a Burlesque Olympics floor-show later that night, after which all the goths and drag queens presumably turned into vampires (we didn’t hang around long enough to find out).

The rest of the weekend was comparatively peaceful. On Saturday my friend took me to visit the Museum Berggruen in Charlottenburg: a lovely light-filled neo-classical building with a wonderful collection of classic modernist works by Picasso, Matisse, Paul Klee and Giacometti. There was a special exhibition juxtaposing paintings and drawings by Klee with mobiles by Alexander Calder. When we activated one by gently blowing on it the museum guards wagged their fingers and shook their heads: ‘Verboten!’ In another room was a small screen showing a charming film from the late 1920s of Calder’s ‘Circus’, which showed the artist playing with his miniature object-theatre like an exuberant child (the museum guards must have been horrified). 

I found myself entranced by the innocence and plasticity of Calder and Klee’s imaginations. In room after room of Picassos, on the other hand, I was struck by the artist’s obsessive fixation with women (from one decade, style and indeed woman to the next) as mysterious and ultimately frustrating objects of desire. It was a far cry from the Matisse retrospective I’d seen in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum earlier that week. In his increasingly simplified paintings and cut-outs women had seemed on the contrary to be figures of freedom and joie-de-vivre

We spent Sunday morning wandering Görlitzer Park past the Turkish families having picnics beneath the chestnut trees with their portable barbecues (and the ubiquitous Africian drug dealers hovering hopefully beneath every other tree). Then we had an afternoon drink by the canal at the deliciously chilled-out Club der Visionäre (recommended by one of my daughters), where I pretended I was in my 20s again (and a hipster at long last). 

Kreuzberg reminded me a little of a Turkish-infused version of the St Kilda I lived in twenty years ago. Before re-unification it was an enclave-within-an-enclave, surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall (as was West Berlin itself in relation to the rest of East Germany). In the 70s it became a magnet for the immigrant Turkish community as well as bohemian artists, musicians and punks because of the availability of cheap housing, squats and improvised venues and studios. When the Wall came down, the district suddenly found itself in the centre of the old/new Berlin, just south of the high-culture museum-district of Mitte in the former east. Now the twin scourges of gentrification and backpacker-tourism were visibly well underway. Nevertheless ‘X-Berg’ clearly still saw itself as the centre of the action. In the warm spring weather, locals and visitors wandered the streets drinking beer from bottles or sat at tables outside the endless kebab shops and bars. By the end of the weekend I was feeling very much at home.

*

After seeing my friend off at Berlin Hauptbahnof, it was time for some serious theatregoing. I’d arrived here just in time for the annual Theatertreffen, a kind of festival-showcase featuring the ten ‘most remarkable’ German-language productions of the past year by companies from all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland (as selected by an artistic ‘jury’), together with a Stückemarkt of playreadings and a raft of workshops, discussion-forums, film-screenings, exhibitions and related events held in venues all over the city, but principally at the all-purpose festival centre known as the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. As such, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to experience a (no doubt partial) overview of what was currently happening in German theatre, as well as a taste of Berlin’s manifold other offerings, cultural and otherwise. (Actually the dates also coincided neatly with a three-week break in the series of voice, text and movement workshops I’d been doing in Orkney with Kristin Linklater. I’ll postpone writing about the whole experience of studying with Kristin in Orkney for a future Postcard.)

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Germany is blessed with a plethora of high-quality, highly attended and heavily funded theatre and dance companies, opera houses, orchestras and other artistic and cultural institutions. In part this can be attributed to the history of the concept of die Kultur (which means both ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’) which was seen at least since the 18th Century as playing an essential role in the formation of the individual and the community – a concept which is entirely absent in Australia except among Aboriginal people, for whom it goes without saying that participating in and having access to your ‘culture’ is vital to the notion of who you are. It’s also a by-product of the political history of Germany, which – at least until the rise to dominance of Prussia in the late 19th Century, and perhaps even not until the totalitarian centralization of the Nazi state in the 20th – was a loose confederation of independent kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, imperial electorates, city-states and regional territories, each with its own distinct cultural identity.

The result is that cities like Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden today all have their own signature theatre and ballet companies, opera houses and orchestras. In the case of Berlin, the situation is heightened by its post-War history of partition and reunification, which has effectively bequeathed it the cultural resources of two cities in one, including three major opera houses (the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper in the former east, and the Deutsche Oper in the former west) and at least five major theatre companies (counting the Deutsches Theater, the Berliner Ensemble, the Volksbühne and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in the former east and the Schaubühne in the former west – and not including the substantial Freieszene or independent scene). 

All these institutions are funded primarily at a municipal level by the cities themselves; and it’s notable that there are no ‘national’ or even ‘state’ companies, at least not as we know them in Australia. Perhaps that’s because terms like ‘national’ have a particularly ominous historical resonance in Germany. In fact the Germans – and the Berliners in particular – have a relationship with the past which Australians could learn something from. In short: they acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that shit happened. Indeed, ‘the relationship with the past’ – as thematic content, interpretative process and social function –  is central to German theatre (as it is arguably to Western theatre in general from the Greeks onwards). Hence the continual and radical reinterpretation of classic plays in German theatres as a lense through which to view the present, as well as the preponderance of new plays that deal with recent history.

*

I headed off to the Festspiele on Sunday night for a reading of a new play called Der Staat (‘The State’) by Bulgarian writer Alexander Maluinoff, which was tantalizingly described in the brochure as having neither a director nor a cast. We sat in a circle in a darkened room, surrounding a tightly-lit table with a stack of envelopes on it, a microphone dangling above and a waste-paper bin nearby. After a few minutes of silence and stillness, the penny dropped and someone in the audience got up, went over to the table, opened the uppermost envelope, took out a sheet of paper and read the contents aloud into the microphone, before discarding the waste-paper into the bin. And so it continued. The ‘letters’ were ‘from’ a young Bulgarian man who – it emerged – had publicly set himself on fire in 2013 in protest against what he simply called ‘the state’. They varied in length and lucidity, successively and simultaneously invoking the writer’s psychological ‘state’, the political ‘state’ against which he was protesting, his impending act of political ‘theatre’ and/or the act of literal theatre in which we were now complicit.

I found the concept fascinating, but was surprised by the audience’s resistance, which took the form of reading letters silently and refusing to share them, throwing them in the bin, walking out, reshuffling the envelopes, or acting out various other ‘clever’, subversive or mocking scenarios. Nevertheless – even in this degraded form – the play had its own ineluctable dramatic tension, as it interrogated ever more urgently the ontology of politics and indeed theatre itself, implicitly asking the question of what it means to stage or enact something, in the flickering light of the letter-writer’s imminent auto-da-fé. 

At the end of the performance, I got up and read (again) the haunting final letter (which someone else had previously read out of sequence and then discarded), before pocketing it and walking out. I reproduce the contents of the letter here, without futher comment:

The Performance wants us to stand up. If we do so, the Performance will slowly come to an end. And we will have some time to observe the imaginary flames coming out of the urn. Can we see them? Can we sense the smell? Would we dare make a real fire out of it? What are we afraid of? What are we waiting for? Or do we think that even if we dare, they will still not let us do it? Do what? (PAUSE. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. IT’S OKAY. IT’S OKAY.) We may clap now. Yes, we are asked to start clapping now. Is there anything else we can do?

*




The following evening I was back at the Festspiele for a performance by the Münchner Kammerspiele of Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? directed by Susanne Kennedy and based on the film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder about a humble officer-worker and family-man who finally ‘runs amok’ in his living-room and slaughters his neighbour, wife and son. It would have been Fassbinder’s 70th birthday this year (he took a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982) and he was the Theatertreffen’s ‘Focus’ artist, with multiple stagings, screenings and discussions of his films, as well as a major exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau entitled ‘Fassbinder – Now’. 

In the event, like so many ‘homages’, the play turned out to be an excruciatingly didactic exercise. Five actors wearing full-face silicone masks and hideous 70s retro costumes re-enacted the entire film scene-by-scene on an even more hideous 70s retro set. To make matters worse, they mimed all the action and dialogue to a soundtrack featuring non-actors’ voices and generic sound effects (doors opening and closing, cars passing, drinks being poured, food being eaten, heads being bashed in, etc). It was mesmerizing for the first few scenes (each of which seems to take forever because of the difference between film and theatre-time), but became unendurable over the next two hours and ten minutes (no interval). 

The only interesting variation came when the actors begin randomly swapping characters, which only gradually became apparent because of the masks, costumes and sountrack. Otherwise, it was a spectacular demonstration of the fact that imitation is the worst form of flattery. The sense of social and psychological claustrophobia that was once so fresh and alive in Fassbinder’s films – and unique to their time and place, to him as an artist, and to his mastery of the medium – here became a leaden form of repetition that did nothing more than restate the obvious, without regard for (or in defiance of) the actors, the audience and the medium of theatre itself. Alas, it was a pattern I was going to see repeated over the next ten days.

*

The following night I ventured beyond the confines of the Theatertreffen to see a new production of Hölderlin’s translation of Oedipus directed by Romeo Castellucci at the Schaubühne. Cult mad-genius poet-translator meets cult avant-garde contemporary-performance director meets cult alternative-cool theatre company: what could possibly go wrong? 

In fact the opening twenty minutes were spellbinding: an almost wordless ballet (apart from the odd Latin chant) featuring a silent order of nuns coming and going about their business while shifting furniture, objects and black sliding walls on and off stage, the whole thing softly lit behind a scrim, like a painting by Georges de La Tour. This dumb-show told the story of the illness and death of an old nun, and the discovery by one of her fellow sisters of a hidden copy of Hölderlin’s Oedipus propping up one of the legs of her bed. She then began reading the book aloud, whereupon the scrim flew up and the black walls disappeared, revealing a vast new all-white space (vaguely reminiscent of a Greek temple) in which Sophocles’s tragedy now unfolded, with the nun-reader becoming the leader of the chorus (played by the other nuns) and all the other roles also played by women (except for Tiresias, the man-woman seer). Costumes were now also white, with the main characters dressed to represent Biblical figures: Oedipus as a female Christ, Jocasta as Mary, Kreon as Peter (in his dual capacity as betrayer and successor) and Tiresias as John the Baptist (complete with a wooden cross and a very patient live lamb). 

The whole thing was brilliantly conceived, beautifully staged, intensely performed – and ultimately left me cold. Deafening sound effects when Tiresias delivered his parting curse only underscored the emotional hollowness of the staging; and things got worse with a long projection sequence (during the offstage suicide of Jocasta and blinding of Oedipus) featuring Castellucci himself being sprayed with a toxic chemical used by police to subdue offenders. This came across as a clumsy piece of self-dramatizing thinly disguised as a vaguely political artistic statement, which only undermined the aesthetic integrity of what had gone before. 

Of course such successive coups de théâtre  – or perhaps anti-theatre – are in a sense integral to Castellucci’s work, since he has long declared his commitent to the legacy of Artaud through (among other things) the practice of continually pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet by disrupting the form of what we thought we were watching. This can be enthralling, as in the case of previous Castellucci productions I’ve seen – Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep and On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – both which eschewed narrative completely. Here however it came across as nothing less than a self-subverting fear and mistrust in relation to the power of the text to speak to a contemporary audience without sign-posting, visual shorthand or stage-tricks. 

This reached its absurd conclusion with the play’s devastating final chorus, which ends with words to the effect of ‘call no man happy until he reaches the end of life without suffering’. Here it was performed by a trio of palpitating post-human Patricia Piccini-like puppets and accompanied by a distorted recording of the text punctuated by farting sounds. The audience giggled, and the actors took their curtain-call with the pained smiles actors always have when they know they’ve been asked to perform the impossible and faithfully done their duty. For my part, I wished the production had remained with the nuns in their convent, and allowed them inhabit and embody Sophocles’s play and Hölderlin’s words. But for a director like Castellucci, it seems, enough is never enough. 




Postcard from Berlin [2] 



The Story of Berlin/Theatertreffen (2): The Unmarried Ones/Tacita Dean: Event for a Stage

On Wednesday morning I visit ‘The Story of Berlin’: a rather cheesy interactive museum for tourists and school-groups located in a shopping arcade on the Kurfürstendamm. Its biggest drawcard is an underground nuclear bunker which was built in the 1970s and ostensibly meant to house 3,600 people and provide them with shelter, food, water and air until the immediate effects of radiation had abated. I join a group of French, American and Japanese tourists led by a cheerful young student. We follow her into an underground carpark, squeeze into a tiny elevator and descend several floors to emerge into a vast concrete underworld. Our guide conducts us through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers filled with wash-basins (no mirrors), showers (no curtains) and toilet-cubicles (no doors), culminating in a cavernous space filled with row after row of narrow bunks tightly stacked four layers high. I can’t help wondering how long people would have survived down here, in what conditions, or to what ultimate end. In fact the whole set-up makes me think of a subterranean concentration camp; at best, a clumsy exercise in propaganda; at worst, a grim extension of totalitarianism – and this, be it noted, in the so-called ‘free zone’ of the former West Berlin. 

The rest of the museum (located in the upper floors of the shopping arcade) is a little more kitsch, with stairways and room-displays leading chronologically through the city’s history, and featuring costumed mannequins, theatrical sets, furniture, props and sound-effects. When we get to the Weimar Republic, there’s even a miniature cinema screening excerpts from the heyday of the silent and early sound era, when German films briefly led the world. Then comes the Depression, political chaos, and things rapidly go downhill: a long winding staircase literally descends to a basement level with room after room documenting the successive catastrophes of Nazism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Allied destruction of Berlin, and the subsequent decades of Communism and the Cold War. 

I re-emerge into the thriving bustle of modern-day Kufürstendamm with its fashion outlets, chain-stores and advertising billboards an hour later with the sense that no comparable European capital city witnessed such reversals of fortune, whether self-inflicted or externally imposed (which is not to minimize the devastations of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima or Nagasaki). In the case of Berlin, a thoroughly modernized avant-garde metropolis that rivalled London, Paris or New York once went through the same whirwind as Baghdad or Damascus now. It’s a sobering reminder for those of us who’ve grown up associating such images of destruction with the underdeveloped world, from Vietnam to Iraq – and somehow brings such contemporary zones of war and conflict closer to home. Further down the Kufürstendamm I pass the bombed ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church flanked by its 1950s brutalist concrete, steel and glass successor and matching bell-tower. Past and present co-habit uneasily in this city of scars and memories.

*

That night at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele I see a classic example of what might be called the contemporary German-language trauma-play. In fact it’s one of two productions from Vienna by the Burgtheater in Akademietheater that have been selected by the jury of the Theatertreffen. Die Unverheirateten (‘The Unmarried’) is a new play by Ewald Palmetshofer, directed and designed by Robert Borgmann. The story concerns a woman, ‘The Old One’ (played by famous Viennese stage veteran Elisabeth Orth) who reported a soldier to the Nazi authorities for talking about desertion during the closing months of the war. Her ‘betrayal’ led to his execution, and after the war she was herself tried and imprisoned by the Allied authorities for being a Nazi informer. However, she had also fallen pregnant to the same soldier, and given birth to a daughter, ‘The Middle One’ (Christiane von Pöllnitz) – who in turn subsequently had a daughter of her own, ‘The Young One’ (Stefanie Reinsperger), again without acknowledging the identity of the father. All three generations of women keep secrets from each other, and needless to say have failed to find permanent partners or have stable relationships. Now the grandmother has been hospitalized with a stroke; her grandaughter visits her; and the truth about the past begins to emerge. 

Palmetshofer uses a heightened poetic language (I had to rely heavily on the English surtitles) which tumbles out mostly in monologues delivered either directly to the audience or to one of the other women as silent interlocutors. Borgmann’s staging is similarly abstract, dynamic, metaphorical and even visceral: the floor is covered with earth with which the actors smear or bury themselves (and even at one point shove into their mouths); wooden furniture is hacked with axes; billowing walls of cloth repeatedly rise and fall like huge curtains. There’s also a slightly camp cabaret chorus of four younger women who intermittently (and somewhat gratingly) comment on the action (I found these sections the least persuasive in the show). The three central performances however are gripping, especially the mostly immobile and impassive figure of Orth as the grandmother. All in all, despite some welcome leavenings of humour (mostly from Reinsperger as the accordion-playing, wisecracking, self-degrading grandaughter), it’s a relentlessly grim two hours of trauma-theatre, even if there’s a sense of reconciliation and healing at the end. I’m reminded a little of Bernard Schlink’s novel The Reader, another parable of guilt, betrayal, secrets, misunderstandings, recrimination and (perhaps) forgiveness. The Unmarried however comes across more like an all-female post-war Oresteia. Once again, German theatre reaches back to its Greek antecedents.

*

On Thursday afternoon I catch up with an Austrian friend who lives and works in Berlin as an actor, singer and teacher. We meet in Schöneberg and have lunch (Spargel, the huge, white and deliciously sweet asparagus that are currently in season and dominate every street vendor’s stall and restaurant menu). Then we wander the streets of her neighborhood, and she tells me about living and working here. I’m envious of all the permanent ensemble companies; but as she points out, not every actor is suited to that kind of employment regime; and I sense the same old conflict between job security and creative freedom that bedevils actors everywhere. Oh, well. At least in Berlin you have a choice.

She walks me back to the Festspiele, where I’m seeing the premiere screening of English visual artist Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage. Dean is an artist I admire, especially for her work in (and advocacy for) the medium (and materiality) of film as an endangered species (as opposed to video, which is rapidly displacing it). Invited to make a work of theatre for the first time in 1994, she approached the English actor Stephen Dillane (perhaps best known for his TV work in John Adams and Game of Thrones, but previously a stage actor renowned for his Hamlet and one-man Macbeth) and invited him to collaborate with her on a project, without knowing exactly what it would turn out to be. 

In the 'event', so to speak, four consecutive public performances by Dillane were staged in the round at Carriageworks in Sydney and filmed by two roving cameras circling the actor (and each other). This in turn provided the raw material for a 50-minute film based on shots spliced together from all four performances (Dillane wore a different wig each night and varied his facial hair). The text (which also appears to be at least partly by Dillane) is based on conversations with Dean, reflections on acting and performance, revelations about recent family losses, a speech from The Tempest by Prospero to his daughter, and extracts from Kleist’s famous essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ –which among other things outlines a kind of natural history of consciousness and posits the ultimate supercession of the live performer by the marionette (and perhaps more generally of the human by the machine). 

Beneath the text and performance one senses a testiness verging on hostility from the actor towards the artist and the project itself. Some extracts from the published script (which tellingly is credited to Dean alone without acknowledging the evident role of Dillane as at least its co-author) illustrate this tension, which for me animated the work with a sense of drama (and indeed dramatic irony, to refer again to Kleist) and raised it above the level of conceptual art or mere dissertation: 

The artist told me she has filmed people before…but this time she is trying to film a process, a craft, a profession. She is interested in what she calls ‘self-consciousness’…It is something she doesn’t like to see in her films, she says, her subjects being aware of themselves, aware of themselves being watched…

She ­– the artist – asked me to play the role of an actor, the role of the actor being filmed on stage. She said she wanted to make a portrait of an actor on context, in his natural habitat, like a beast in its lair. 

I said I don’t really do stage acting anymore.

‘Don’t you?’ she said. ‘Well, why did you agree to come?’

Dillane delivers all this with barely disguised irritation – occasionally breaking off to snatch pages of script from the artist, who is sitting in the front row. At one point he drops the script and exits, banging the fire door behind him. The theatre audience (and we, the cinema audience) sit there waiting uncertainly for what seems like minutes, before he finally returns and finishes the performance, with a final moving revelation about the family tragedy that preceded him coming here.
  
I find Dillane a compelling presence onstage and onscreen: in fact I can’t imagine anyone else pulling off a similar double-act. Watching him endlessly pacing, circling and weaving like a prisoner, I’m reminded of Rilke’s great poem about the panther: ‘His gaze has become so tired from going over and over/ The bars of his cage that he sees nothing more. / It seems to him as if there were a thousand bars; / And beyond those thousand bars, no world.’


*

Postcard from Berlin 3


Maxim Gorki Theater, Common Ground; Komische Oper, West Side Story/Moses und Aron; Hamburg Deutsches Schauspielhaus, John Gabriel Borkman




After seeing Event for a Stage (the last work reviewed in my previous Postcard) I’m left pondering the questions it raises about being an actor, performing in front of an audience, serving a director’s vision, and the peculiar self-consciousness (or self-abnegation) all of this entails. I don’t have any answers, but I’m ready to be an audience-member again and forget myself for a while. 

Common Ground is the Maxim Gorki Theater production selected for inclusion in this year’s Theatertreffen. It’s a collaborative work of documentary theatre directed by Israeli theatre-maker Yael Ronen, and co-written by her and the cast – most of whom are from former Yugoslavia, apart from one (Orit Namias) who identifies herself as Israeli (and interested in ‘conflict resolution’), and another (Niels Bormann) who identifies himself as ‘German’ (and gay). These two are the chief comic foils in the piece (and also the chief points of access for the audience), as they vainly struggle to understand the complex identity-politics that still divides the rest of the cast – from each other and more deeply within themselves. 

A brief warm-up act by Orit in English – simulaneously and subsersively mistranslated by Niels into German, while alternating surtitles in both languages keep track of what’s really going on – is followed by a high-speed group flashback through the 90s during which the individual cast members relive their pre-war youth. The rest of the play reconstructs the process of how they found (or failed to find) ‘common ground’ while developing the show – primarily through a collective research-trip to post-war Bosnia. 

All this might sound didatic or self-indulgent, but to my relief the script, staging and performances are refreshingly witty, physical and sexy – more so in fact than any other theatre I’ve seen so far in Berlin. The show also doesn’t avoid the complexities of its subject matter in the name of facile notions of personal, political or artistic ‘closure’: there are no happy or unhappy endings here, and tensions remain unresolved. Most importantly, the actors seem fully empowered as collaborative theatre-makers rather than mere performers executing the conceptual whims of an auteur-director (unlike the Susanne Kennedy and Castellucci versions of Fassbinder and Holderlin/Sophocles I sat through the previous week).

The most interesting and effective theatrical ‘device’ is that two of the young female actors tacitly swap roles and play each other: a young Bosnian Muslim whose father was killed in a massacre, and a young Bosnian Serb whose father supervised the same massacre (and is still an active politician in a post-war Serbian enclave). The two women meet at an audition, become best friends, eventually realise their tangled connection, and embrace at the end of the show. The role-swap isn’t explicitly acknowledged, but hinted at when one corrects the other over tiny details during the latter’s monologue about ‘her’ father’s death. It’s later confirmed for me by one of the actors in question, when I chat with her in halting German at the theatre bar after the show. We linger in the foyer for a post-show concert of ‘Balkan Soul’ sung by another female actor from Sarajevo (whom she refers to as ‘her hero’), and I think about the ironies of an Israeli director coming to Berlin to work with a cast of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims on a play about genocide.

I remember earlier that day seeing a sheet hanging out of the upper-floor window of an apartment building in Kreuzberg, and painted with the words: ‘No border, no nation.’ Tonight in the Maxim Gorki Theatre at least, those words ring true. In a similar vein, after every performance I attend at the Theatertreffen, the actors return to the stage and read aloud from a manifesto, ‘My Right Is Your Right!’, calling for the right of asylum seekers to move and live freely within the EU and to be protected from discrimination. ‘The asylum policies in Germany and Europe have failed,’ the manifesto proclaims. ‘The processes and dealings with refugees in Berlin have shown that this city is not the open metropolis it claims to be.’ I think with shame of my own country’s current policy of ‘stopping the boats’. Old habits, it seems, die hard, in Europe as well as back home.

*



The following night I’m at the Komische Oper for Barrie Kosky’s production of West Side Story. Barrie is in my opinion easily the most significant theatre and opera director to have come out of Australia in the last twenty-five years, comparable with Jim Sharman or Neil Armfield in terms of theatrical instinct, stagecraft and showmanship, but otherwise utterly different in terms of his hybrid aesthetic – which is broadly cosmopolitan, postmodernist (or perhaps more specifically post-surrealist), iconoclastically Jewish and high camp in equal measure. At its best, his work achieves a sense of delirium and even nightmare like nothing else I’ve seen onstage; I still count his productions of The Dybbuk with Gilgul Theatre and The Lost Echo with the STC Actors Company as two of the most exhilarating and terrifying nights I’ve had in the theatre or anywhere else. He also led the way for a new generation of young male Australian directors on the national and international stage that includes Benedict Andrews, Matt Lutton and Simon Stone. Since 2012 he's been the Intendant and Chief Director at the Komische Opera; after his first season, it was voted ‘Opera House of the Year’. Under his leadership the company stages equally radical versions of baroque, classical, romantic and modern operas alongside Broadway musicals and Viennese operettas. I’m equally impressed by the fact that he’s had screens installed in the back of the seats with surtitles in Turkish as well as English, German and French. His stated philosophy is not to try to please everyone, but simply to do what he loves. With houses at 85% of capacity, it seems to be working; his contract was recently extended to 2022.

Before being appointed Indendant he scored a huge success at the Komische Oper with Kiss Me Kate, and has since championed the Broadway musical as a vital offshoot of the European operatic tradition transplanted to America by the Jewish cultural diaspora (the same argument can be extended to the Hollywood film industry, as Simon Schama does in The Story of the Jews). West Side Story fits the bill perfectly, with its brilliant Bernstein score, scintillating Sondheim lyrics, ambitious original choreography by Jerome Robbins (replaced in this production with a thrilling new dance score by Otto Pichler) and book by Arthur Laurents – the whole thing inspired by Romeo and Juliet and transplanted to the youth gangs of 1950s immigrant New York (or in this production, a contemporary globalized city that could be anywhere in the world)The staging is lean and minimal (apart from a spectacular mirror-ball sequence), leaving the music and drama to speak for themselves. In fact it’s probably the least ‘interventionist’ Kosky production I’ve seen – apart from one song, the heart-rending ‘Somewhere’, whose Utopian sense of longing is heightened by the addition of an elderly couple who dance and hold hands with the two young leads (engagingly played and sung by Jasmina Sakr and Michael Pflumm).

As with Common Ground the previous night, I find the whole show an intelligent, visceral and deeply moving statement about tribalism and love. It’s an extra treat hearing Bernstein’s rhythmically biting, colouristically dazzling, melodically and harmonically ravishing score played by a full orchestra. All in all, Barrie makes a convincing case for the work as a cornerstone of the 20th century musical-dramatic repertoire, operatic or otherwise.

*



On Saturday night I return to the Festpielhaus for my final sample from the Theatertreffen: the Hamburg Deutsches Schauspielhaus production of Ibsen’s penultimate play, John Gabriel Borkman, directed by Karin Henkel. 

Ibsen’s late works mark a return from the social and domestic realism of his middle period to the more psychological and symbolic landscapes of his early verse-dramas Brandt and Peer Gynt. In fact the last act of John Gabriel Borkman literally takes us out of the drawing-room and back into the wilderness, as the two main characters (and former lovers, who – as always in Ibsen – have denied themselves and each other for the sake of ‘the world’) leave the house and go out into the snowbound forest to die; the play’s successor, When We Dead Awaken, ends even more spectacularly with its lovers buried in an avalanche. These last two plays are thus as ‘literally’ unstageable as the first two – which is to not to say that they can’t be staged at all, but rather that they can’t be staged literally. In this respect, they anticipate the 'dream plays' of Strindberg and the advent of Expressionism. 

Henkel’s production makes broad gestures in support of this stylistic transition: once again, all the actors wear masks (which are sporadically and to all intents and purposes randomly removed and then replaced again); Borkman’s wife Gunhild (Julia Wieninger) periodically rushes over to an organ at the side of the stage and interrupts the dialogue with a deranged hymn; Borkman himself (Josef Ostnendorf) is visible upstage from the beginning of the play lying on a slab as if prematurely emtombed (rather than being heard invisibly walking up and down in his room upstairs until Act Two); and everyone’s movements and delivery are exaggerated beyond the edge of parody (the mortally yet mysteriously ailing Ella Rentheim, in a show-stealing turn by Lina Beckmann, is given a twitching, spasmodic physicality that has the audience continually laughing out loud).

It’s all entertaining and clever enough, in a post-Brechtian pantomine kind of way, but I can’t help feeling that the play is being kept at a cerebral and mocking distance rather than being seriously engaged with. Ironically, the most successful scene theatrically is arguaby the weakest-written in the play: the melodramatic confrontation in Act Three between the estranged parents, their son Erhart (Jan-Peter Kampwirth), his English mistress Mrs Wilton (Kate Strong) and their young and willing helpmeet Frida (Gala Winter). It’s played as a camp comedy-of-manners, but completely avoids the sense of catastrophe being transmitted from one generation to the next, which is Ibsen’s obsessive preoccupation. Conversely, the transcendent Fourth Act – which concludes with Borkman’s death on a bench in the snow overlooking a fjord, while the rival twin sisters Gunhilde and Ella take hands over his corpse (‘We two shadows – over the dead man’) – is here reduced to a non-event taking place back inside the house.

One wonders, what was the point of staging it at all? For a production of a play about facing the past, the whole thing seems more like an exercise in denial. The program is replete with the usual obligatory quotes from Nietzsche, Rilke, Freud and Canetti, but the production itself has nothing to say to me – except perhaps, that if you’re going to tackle Ibsen, especially the late plays, you need to be up for the climb. As Ella says to Borkman at the start of Act Four, as they gaze out over the fjord and the mountains beyond: ‘We have often sat on this bench before, and looked out into a much further distance. It was the dreamland of our life. And now that land is buried in snow.’ As with all great plays: if you can’t go there, don’t go there. It’s as simple as that.

*




I’m back at the Komische Oper on Sunday for another new Kosky production: Schönberg’s Moses Und Aron. Arguably the composer’s masterpiece, it’s rarely performed, as much because of his forbidding reputation as the work’s actual musical and dramatic challenges. The score is relentlessly demanding, and unlike most operatic music, non-figurative (although still composed of musical ‘figures’), in the sense that it doesn’t represent what’s happening onstage directly (or at least not according to the habitual connotations of tonal music) but in a rigorously codified and symbolic form, according to logic of the twelve-tone system invented by Schönberg himself. In other words: unlike the music of Wagner, Strauss or the Hollywood cinema-scores they spawned, it’s not a soundtrack providing dramatic or narrative cues but a pure language of its own, with its own grammar and syntax but free from the baggage of semantics. As such it’s an appropriate musical expression for the content of the work, which deals with the contradiction (and mutual entanglement) between pure thought and figurative language, as exemplified by the two Biblical brothers: Moses (here sung by Wagnerian baritone Robert Hayward, although his part is mostly scored as Sprechgesang or 'sung-spoken'), who experiences the thought of God directly through visions and can work miracles; and the more mellifluous Aron (tenor John Daszak), who can interpret and communicate these ‘messages’ to the masses through the medium of language, but only by reducing and betraying their content in the process.

If all this sounds abstract and schematic (and indeed is in Schönberg’s somewhat didactic libretto) Barrie’s gift for visual storytelling vividly brings it to life by linking the story and themes to the entire post-Biblical history of the Jews, and the paradoxes and paroxysms of monotheistic culture and civilization – up to and including Zionism, Broadway, Hollywood and the Holocaust (the production commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945). Moses and Aron are a pair of roadside magicians performing cheap conjuring tricks; the chorus become the gullible contemporary masses; the Dance of the Golden Calf is performed by gold-attired showgirls (male and female) from the 1920s; and the final sacrificial orgy is enacted by the entire chorus brandishing mannequins which are then torn apart and piled up to form a genocidal mass-grave, while being filmed from the wings by two figures using old-fashioned movie cameras and wearing oversized head-masks that look like Freud and Theodor Herzl. Unlike West Side Story, the action is crammed into a relatively confined space, with a low ceiling, large circular down-lights and a steep wide staircase at the back as the only entrance and exit. It looks a little like a hotel lobby or theatre foyer, unfurnished except for a motley collection of Persian rugs on the floor. Moses emerges by unrolling himself from inside one at the beginning, and covers himself again at the end.

Musically and dramatically though, the night belongs to the Komische Oper Chorus, and to Barrie’s stagecraft when it comes to mobilising them. There must be at least a hundred of them onstage and singing for practically the duration of the performance (which runs for about an hour and 45 minutes without interval); and instead of the stand-and-deliver approach which is customary for traditional opera choruses (let alone for a score as demanding as this), here they’re in a continuous state of frenzied animation, physically as well as emotionally. It’s a remarkable feat – and a compelling image of mass psychology in action. It’s also in keeping with the distinctive performance tradition of the company, whose founding director Walter Felsenstein was famous for his Bewegungsregie or ‘movement-direction’. Musically, the whole thing is held together by the masterful conducting of Vladimir Jurowski. It’s hard to believe the same orchestra was doing West Side Story here only two nights ago.

When Moses sings the last words of Act Two (literally, ‘Das Wort mich fehlen!’ –‘Words fail me!’) and covers himself again with a rug before sinking into the pile of mannequins, there’s a prolonged silence as the curtain slowly descends. Schönberg never completed the score for Act Three; but I can’t imagine anything that could possibly follow that devastating final image. 

*

On my last day in Berlin, I decide to visit my grandparents. I catch the U-Bahn to Potzdamer Platz, walk to the corner of Hannah-Arendt-Strasse and thread my way through the vast field of concrete stelae until I find the steps that lead down to the underground information centre of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. I enlist the help of a young man who works there to navigate the computer touch-screens, and eventually we find two entries that seem to match: Max Bauer, born in 1875, and Regine Bauer, born in 1887; same wartime address in Vienna; same transport number to Theresienstadt ghetto on 10/7/1942; same second transport number to Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp on 28/10/1944. Their prisoner numbers are adjacent, for both transports. I hope that means they travelled together, right up until the end.


Postcard from New York, Minneapolis and Chicago 


The Sound and the Fury (Elevator Repair Service); Macbeth (Public Theatre Mobile Shakespeare Unit); Wise Blood (The Soap Factory/Walker Art Centre); Moby Dick (Looking Glass Theatre)


It’s almost six weeks since I arrived in New York to begin the fourth month of my Fellowship, after spending the first three in the UK and Europe. So much has happened since then – in my personal life as well as in terms of the performance training and research that’s been at the core of my itinerary – that I’ve had neither the time nor the mental space to write. The next few Postcards will I hope make up for my long silence, at least in terms of the theatre I’ve seen, the context in which I’ve seen it, and the reflections it’s inspired.

I initially touched down in New York for a mere two days, before continuing on to Minneapolis for a two-week workshop with physical improvisation company The Bodycartography Project. On this first brief stopover in Manhattan, I stayed in a small shared apartment on the Lower East Side overlooking 2nd Avenue, just around corner from the heart of the Off-Broadway theatre scene. My Airbnb host was a nervy young guy who was keen to show me his business card, which declared him to be in the Bedbug Detection industry – a thriving concern in New York apparently. He then introduced me to his business partner and chief asset, a friendly and rather excitable beagle whom he’d invested a great deal of time and money in training. He insisted on demonstrating the dog’s prowess by hiding a small plastic vial of bedbugs in the living room and then encouraging her to sniff them out, but after a cursory search she seemed more interested in joining me on the sofa. 

Only in New York.

*



The day after my arrival I stroll a couple of blocks across town to The Public Theatre to see a three-hour matinee performance of The Sound and the Fury: a restaging by experimental ensemble Elevator Repair Service of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s great modernist novel; the production originally premiered at The New York Theatre Workshop in 2008. The chapter in question is a stream-of-consciousness narrative recording the sensations and memories (the various strands being interwoven and often barely distinguishable) of an intellectually disabled thirty-three-year-old man with a mental age of three who belongs to a declining aristocratic Southern family which includes his hyperchondriacal mother, his two surviving but unstable brothers, and his sexually wayward sister, as well as the struggling family of black servants who support them. It’s an almost impossible task to stage it – and in a way that’s the whole point. 

I’ve seen two other productions by ERS that have toured to Australia over the years: the monumental Gatz, a seven-hour verbatim rendering of The Great Gatsby, which was read aloud by one of the cast, while he and the others also took on roles in the story; and The Select, a more playful (and more play-like) staging of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The Sound and The Fury completes the company’s ‘American trilogy’, which by no means exhausts or even defines their repertoire or focus, as their work has ranged from stagings of court transcripts to original commissioned plays. If anything, I’d describe them as an ensemble company with a special interest in the suspension of disbelief – that uniquely theatrical gap between form and content that lies between what’s seen and heard onstage and what occurs in the mind’s eye of the audience. Hence their attraction to staging works of literature precisely as ‘impossible tasks’, an approach which resembles less a conventional process of adaptation than an expanded notion of verbatim theatre. 

They’re led by director John Collins, formerly an associate with The Wooster Group, with whom he worked primarily as a sound designer, and whose directorial approach is primarily task-based rather than prescriptive. Productions are developed over long periods of time by allowing the cast to solve problems and generate material themselves in response to proposed texts. In other words, he creates the conditions of possibility for them to make their own performances, which he then shapes and edits in production. This permits a sense of ownership and freedom on the part of the performers which is immediately evident when watching them onstage. It’s like watching kids playing in front of your eyes, in a state of focused flow.

In the event, The Sound and The Fury is a much more demanding production (and novel) than Gatz or The Select.  If perhaps it doesn’t quite realise itself as completely or successfully as its precursors, this is arguably also true of the sprawling, incomplete and patchwork nature of Faulkner’s novel, in comparison with the gem-like perfection of Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s respective masterpieces. That said, I loved it; but then, I love the novel; and in both cases, it’s the magnificently quixotic failure of the exercise that’s an essential part of what I love about them; whereas the incredible feat of Gatz in particular was precisely the fact that it completely succeeded – and in doing so staged The Great Gatsby in a way that was far truer to the form and content of the novel than the excruciatingly sentimental and glamourized film versions. 

As with Gatz, there’s no attempt with The Sound and the Fury to turn Faulkner’s novel (if it can even be described as such) into a play. A copy of the book gets passed around the stage and is sometimes read from (and sometimes not); the text is read or spoken more or less verbatim, including the words ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, which are hastily appended to lines of dialogue; actors play multiple characters, and (perhaps more confusingly) the same characters are played by multiple actors; the cast are diverse in terms of age, gender, appearance and cultural background, but there’s often a deliberate disregard and even tension between this and the characters they play. Some actors use ‘Southern’ accents, others not; costumes vary between contemporary streetclothes and makeshift signifiers of role; the set is a highly detailed, naturalistic and cluttered living room which in no way attempts to reproduce any literal setting from the novel, although the mélange of old furniture and family heirlooms evokes the echo-chamber of memory which is arguably its proper mental space; and there’s a similarly detailed use of sound (and sound effects) which resembles radio drama and is at times almost comically mimetic but at other times only tangentially related to the narrative.

Despite and even because of all this, the novel emerges for me with all the force and clarity of a hidden image in a picture-puzzle. In fact I’ve never experienced such a vivid rendition in the theatre of the imaginative process of reading itself – and reading this novel in particular. The slippages of time, place, character, memory and sensation correspond to those in Faulkner’s writing, and to Benjy’s consciousness (the title is of course a reference to Macbeth’s lines about life being ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’). No doubt, there’s a very New York tendency towards irony and intellectualisation in all this; in a way, ERS remains me of a smart, cool band like Talking Heads or Television in their heyday; but like those bands, their work is also edgy, funny, captivating and at times filled with a sharply aching sense of yearning. One would be hard pressed to find theatre of this intelligence and sophistication anywhere else; nor a genuine ensemble company like this, led by a director who knows how to throw his actors a bone and then let them go for it.

*



That night I return to The Public Theatre on impulse, to see an in-house production of Macbeth by the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which creates and tours work to prisons, shelters, recreation centers and other community-based sites. Running at about 70 minutes without an interval, it’s a lean, mean, heavily edited version of the play, which suits Shakespeare’s most episodic and randomly structured tragedy (especially in the later Acts, where whole scenes and characters can easily be cut without loss). 

The production is lively and simple, and the performances have an engagingly natural sense of vernacular speech and body-language which is generally absent in Australian versions of Shakespeare, where actors often seem either trapped in a dated notion of ‘Englishness’ or equally artificial notions of ‘Australianness’, both of which are abiding symptoms of the cultural cringe that still afflicts us back home. The actor playing Macbeth is compelling, although I can’t help sensing a degree of self-involvement which gets in the way at times of the character and the verse; there’s a lot of extended pauses, eyeballing of the audience and other actors, and interpolated extra-syllabic grunts. Perhaps it reflects the intended performance context and audience for which the show was devised; or perhaps it’s flip-side of the vernacular quality I mentioned earlier – Macbeth meets On the Waterfront, so to speak. In this respect, perhaps there’s an American version of the cultural cringe, too, which manifests itself in the inverted form of a perpetual posture of rebellious defiance, as epitomised by the most famous graduates of The Actor’s Studio, from Brando and James Dean to Jack Nicholson, Pacino and De Niro. To be sure, the play is at least in part about disloyalty, but making its titular lead a rebel without a cause somewhat short-circuits the journey of his character.

In any case, something essential about Shakespeare gets lost in translation. I think it’s the heightened externalization of character, action, cosmos, and the language that expresses them – which is precisely what speaks to us across time and space. This is a play about witches and kings, ghosts and visions, heaven and hell, and ‘Pity, like a naked newborne babe, striding the blast’. If we don’t hear and see these things as if they were real, and not just the trappings of history or rhetoric, then in the end it’s all just ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

*

I left New York the next day, for two weeks in Minneapolis, where I spent my time in the workshop with Bodycartography. Here I experienced the best of ‘Minnesota nice’, staying in a charming sloping-roofed house with my delightful host and her daughter in the suburb of Longfellow, on a peaceful street lined with maples and populated by rabbits and squirrels hopping about on the front lawns and darting up and down the trees. My host lent me her bike, and I rode each day to the Tapestry Folk Dance Centre where the workshop was held. On weekends I made good use of the bike paths and greenways that traverse the city, and visited the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Centre, and closer to hand in Longfellow, the mighty Mississippi and Minnehaha Falls. I was in the Midwest all right.

I didn’t see any theatre – apart from an ambitious but disappointing opera based on Flannery O’Connor’s cult Southern Gothic novel Wise Blood. Actually it was more of an immersive-promenade site-specific installation-performance, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Centre and staged in the haunting environs of The Soap Factory, a rehabilitated found-venue in downtown Minneapolis.

As is often the case with site-specific theatre, the existing architecture and visual design were the outstanding features, with one of the show’s creators, Chris Larson, constructing an intricate set within the space for the audience and performers to wander through and inhabit. I was less impressed by the work of his co-creators: composer and librettist Anthony Gatto, and director Michael Sommers (who also performed in the show). The score was woefully uninteresting and (dare I say) one-note in mood and tempo (which is to say, relentlessly dirge-like, and utterly unsuited to the spiky and unpredictable nature of O’Connor’s writing); and the libretto was a clumsy attempt to foreshorten and reshuffle the structure of the novel, which lead to an incoherent Frankenstein’s monster that could satisfy neither newcomers nor afficionados. As for the direction: it failed to grapple with the elemetary challenge of immersive-promenade performance, which is both to justify and facilitate the audience having to remain on their feet while continually being herded around.  

I’ll have more to say about immersive and participatory theatre in the context of other shows I saw on my return to New York. Suffice to say that it’s become something of a craze at the moment, for reasons that I suspect have a lot to do with the influence of virtual reality and so-called reality TV (I say ‘so-called’ because of course the ‘reality’ in question is anything but real). This is not to gainsay the potential of the form; but without sufficient motivation in terms of content or craft in delivery the result can be little more than an elaborate gimmick, and this felt like the case here.

In sum: despite some outstanding work from the singers, actors, musicians and scenic artist, the creative minds behind Wise Blood left the unfortunate performers and audience high and dry – in other words, unable to connect with each other, or the story itself. Of course we all applauded dutifully at the end, with a sense of having been present at an important artistic achievement and cultural event; but I doubt whether anyone got much pleasure or enlightenment out of being there.

*

A week later, my workshop completed, I took the train back across the Midwest from Minneapolis to Chicago en route to New York, feeling a little like Nick Carraway at the end of The Great Gatsby, only in reverseI decided to break my journey and spend a night and a day in Chicago: a city which struck me as kind of playground for architects, especially when it comes to skyscrapers from every era and in every conceivable style imaginable over the last century or so. I stayed in a hotel housed in a slender 1920s neo-gothic example sandwiched between two multistorey carparks on the Chicago River in the heart of downtown, directly opposite the glass-and-steel monstrosity of Trump Tower. 




That night I went to hear Ricardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony. It was an all-Russian program: Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ Symphony preceded by Scriabin’s ‘Poem of Ecstasy’. Personally I found the Tchaikovsky a bloated and meandering work with some beautiful melodies but long stretches of uninspired histrionics, despite Muti’s best efforts to keep me focussed. The Scriabin on the other hand was wonderful: Debussy meets Richard Strauss, with a large dollop of Russian mysticism thrown in for good measure. I had a cheap seat up in the choir behind the orchestra, and the final climax (eight horns and an organ) almost blew the top of my head off (as Hemingway might have put it), as well as threatening to cause several coronary infarctions among the senior citizens of Chicago sitting alongside me.

*




The following morning I explored some of the architetural delights of the city, including the Chicago Cultural Centre (formerly the Chicago Public Library), an impressive late-19th Century neo-classical structure which is open to the community with an ongoing program of free exhibitions and concerts. Walking up the marble stairway into the vast hall where people once collected their books – surrounded by walls decorated with elaborate tiled mosaics under a huge Tiffany coloured-glass dome – was like entering the Mermaid’s Palace in Hans Andersen (or perhaps the Doge’s Palace in Venice). Upstairs was a (for me) revelatory exhibition of paintings by Jazz Age black artist Archibald Motley, who lived and worked in Chicago, Paris and finally Mexico, featuring vibrant and provocative images of street life in the black neighbourhoods of Chicago and Paris in the 1920s and 30s. They reminded me a little of the post-Expressionist ‘new objectivity’ and social caricature art of Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann in Germany around the same time. 




That afternoon I went to see a new stage version of Moby Dick, adapted and directed by David Caitlin for Chicago-based company Looking Glass Theatre. The performance went for about three hours, including two intervals and lots of gymnastics, aerial and trapeze work on ropes and swings, and climbing up and down a framework of curved metal scaffolding which was arched over the stage like the ribcage of a whale. Melville meets Cirque de Soleil. I wasn’t convinced. Performances from most of the cast (the men in particular) were disappointingly hammy. Much of the time, it felt like watching a Classics Illustrated comic-book version of the novel. The whales themselves were rather intriguingly represented by the women in the cast, variously singing, being hung upside down and having their long fabric dresses unwound and stripped from them like blubber (revealing the whalebone corsets beneath), and finally taking their revenge by dragging the leg-strapped Ahab offstage in a disappointingly lame climax (if you’ll pardon the pun).

It’s too bad the film of Orson Welles’s Moby Dick – Rehearsed hasn’t survived. Welles approached the adaptation of the novel as a metatheatrical exercise in representing the unrepresentable, using the framing device of an imaginary theatre company who stage the book using minimal resources (and casting himself as the Actor-Manager who takes on the role Ahab, needless to say). I can imagine seeing a compnay like Elevator Repair Service take a similar approach today. 

Reflecting on the experience of seeing this and other literary adaptations on my travels, it struck me that the first thing to acknowledge about the task of putting works of literature onstage is what Freud (in relation to the work of dreams) called ‘considerations of representability’. In the case of Moby Dick, this means recognising that the whale is first and foremost a being of language – a figure of speech, so to speak – and perhaps even an instance of what Lacan would call (with no pun intended) ‘a floating signifier’. In short: the whale represents an idea in Ahab’s mind: a 'fatal image', and perhaps even an obsession, driven by what Freud called the death instinct. As such, it surely belongs offstage – a literally ‘obscene’ object of desire (from the Greek ob skene, meaning ‘off-stage’) that can’t appear or be represented directly, much like Macbeth’s ‘dagger of the mind’ (a symbolic phallus if every there was one: ‘Come, let me clutch thee; I have thee not, and yet I see thee still!’). Perhaps it's this dimension of the off-stage, the absent, the Symbolic, which makes the staging of literature (and indeed everything else, including desire itself) possible: in the theatre, in our dreams and fantasies, and even in the unconscious acting-out of our lives.

That night I boarded the train again, feeling more and more like Nick Carroway, to continue my long journey east: back to New York City, where more thrills and spills – theatrical and personal – awaited me.

Postcard from New York [2]




Then She FellFun Home, Neue Gallerie, Hedwig and the Angry InchYoko Ono: One Woman ShowThe Tempest 


New York, New York, it’s a helluva town – as the words of the song originally went, before the Production Code intervened and changed them to ‘it’s a wonderful town’ for the sanitized film version. The original words are more biting, though, and more ambivalent.

New York, New York, it’s a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, it's a helluva town!

New York, New York, it’s a visitor's place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it's a visitor's place!

New York, New York: wonderful town, helluva town; the setting for some of the most exciting theatrical experiences on my Fellowship travels, and the scene of my undoing. It’s been just over a month since I left there, and it’s going to be harder than ever to separate the strands of my cultural and personal life in what follows. 


*

I didn’t get much sleep on the night train from Chicago. I hadn’t forked out for a sleeper, so I tilted back my chair and dozed as best I could as the Lake Shore Limited plunged on through the flickering darkness across Indiana and Ohio, slowing as it passed through the fading lights of Cleveland around dawn. The scenery the next day was spectacular, even through bleary eyes – especially once we reached New York State, the Catskills and the plunging shores of the Hudson between Albany and New York City. 

I arrived at my Airbnb in the achingly hip district of Williamsburg just across the bridge from the Lower East Side to discover that no one was home to let me in. Fortunately a helpful tenant downstairs let me through to the back yard where I managed to do something I’d only seen in movies and scale the fire escape (quietly congratulating myself on my last two weeks of body-mind training in Minneapolis), and was lucky enough to find an unlocked window to the apartment, which was on the third floor. It turned out I was sharing it with two young guys from Long Island, a law student and an IT consultant, who both had work placements in NYC over the summer. They were as surprised as I was when they got home from the gym and found an intruder in their apartment, as our elusive host (who lived in Paris) hadn’t informed them I was coming. It was definitely the most random Airbnb experience I’d had so far, but I took it all in my stride and settled in, despite the chaos, the heat, the absence of aircon and my tiny room. I was in New York, after all.

*

I was here for two weeks’ down-time from the training and workshop activities at the core of my Fellowship travels. I planned to see some theatre, have a couple of meetings, and do some writing of my own. 

The night after my arrival I went to an immersive/site-specific dance-theatre work in a disused former hospital in nearby Brooklyn by Third Rail Projects called Then She Fell and based on Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as well as Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell, the eleven-year old girl who was the inspiration for the books. Carrroll befriended and photographed her until the family mysteriously but abruptly severed contact with him a year later (the relevent pages from his diary have been tantalisingly torn out).

The show was intelligently conceived, elegantly designed and performed, and appropriately dreamlike and seductive given the ambiguity of the material and the venue itself. In fact it was impossible to tell what was introduced or ‘found’ in terms of objects, props, furniture, décor or interior architecture. The whole experience was explicitly framed as an exploration of liminality. There were only about twenty of us in the audience, and for two hours we were led from floor to floor and room to room, invited to drink various substances (most of which contained alcohol, so we had the option of declining), gradually separated from each other, and shown or invited to take part in various activities (most of which were highly choreographed but became increasingly intimate, and in the course of which we progressed from being voyeurs to active participants). The only rules were: don’t speak during the performance, and don’t open any closed doors. Otherwise we were free to explore the rooms and any objects (or people) we encountered; but mostly the experienced was carefully guided and choreographed, with a continuous music score playing throughout the building, which cleverly kept everything synchronised. 

Often I find immersive work formally interesting but a bit thin when it comes to content and execution, but this show delivered on all fronts. Afterwards I went for a drink with a few other audience-members and we shared what we’d been through, as we’d all had different experiences with different performers in different sequences. As with other successful immersive performances I’ve attended, I still felt like I was in the show when I left the bar and wandered back through the unfamilair and slightly hallucinatory environs of Williamsburg to my apartment. 

This lingering sense of having passed through to the other side of the looking glass and being in a dream persisted throughout my time in New York. Indeed, it took on a nightmarish aspect when things started spiralling out of control at the end of the week.

*

The following day I took the crowded subway across to Manhattan for a meeting. Afterwards I headed uptown to the Circle in the Square theatre to see the matinee of a Broadway (formerly off-Broadway) musical called Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel about a small-town young girl who comes out as gay in her college years, while her father subsequently commits suicide after his own closet homosexuality is exposed. 

I’m not a big fan of musicals but I found this one consistently involving and deeply moving, with an interesting and complex chamber score (in the sweet-sour Sondheim idiom) by Jeanine Tesorim, intelligent lyrics and book by Lisa Kron, skilful and economical staging in-the-round by Sam Gold, and superb performances, especially from Michael Cerveris as the father (a role he orginated at the Public Theatre production in 2014). The story itself packed a real emotional punch – especially the central father-daughter relationship, and the crippling impact of homophobia on an individual and his family – leavened with lighter moments related to the three children’s involvement in the family business (a funeral home) and the narrator-daughter’s discovery of her own sexuality in college (including the hilarious and touching first-love song, ‘I’m changing my major to Joan’). 

Diversity is alive and well on Broadway, it seems – together with a healthy succession of works transferring from original off-Broadway seasons. Certainly I saw more evidence of this symbiotic relationship between alternative and mainstream theatre in New York than back home in Australia: how many Blue Room, La Mama or Griffin shows end up on the stages of Black Swan, the MTC or the STC, let alone commercial theatres? Perhaps in this respect there’s something to be said for the more ruthless (and comparatively underfunded) American theatre scene, which to some extent facilitates this kind of symbiosis by eliminating the sclerotic middle-ground of funded State Theatre Companies competely. 

*

The following afternoon I visited the Neue Gallerie on the edge of Central Park, where a special exhibition featuring Klimt’s first portrait of Adèle Bloch-Bauer was on show to coincide with the recent release of the film The Woman In Gold. The museum houses a superb permanent collection of Viennese and German fin-de-siècle art, and has a scale and focus that reminded me of the Bergruen Museum in Berlin with its collection of classic modernist art. 

The painting itself is a stunning example of Klimt’s so-called ‘golden phase’, but I was a little sceptical about the exhibition’s sensationalized and oversimplified frame-narrative of how a heroic American lawyer restored the portrait of Adèle from the Austrian State Gallery (who had acquired it after it was requisitioned by the Nazis) to her niece (who promptly sold it for a record-breaking sum) – especially when Adèle herself had requested that the painting be left to the Austrian State Gallery in her will (a request which was subsequently overlooked by her husband, who outlived her and then left all ‘his’ possessions to his descendants when he fled Vienna in 1938). To me, it suggested a more complex story from which none of the litigants emerge without blemish, and raised complex questions about art, ownership and property. 

Upstairs at the Neue Gallerie was a much more interesting exhibition juxtaposing early 20th century Russian modernist art with contemporary German early expressionist paintings by the Brücke and Blaue Reiter artists in Dresden and Munich, some of whom also exhibited in Russia, and whose work was known by their Russian counterparts; both were mutually influenced by Fauvism in France at around the same time. Once again, I had a sense of the international efflorescence of a certain phase of modernism, which was cruelly truncated by the First World War and the subsequent rise of totalitarianism in both countries.

*

Afterwards I meandered through Central Park until the lamposts lit up and dusk began to fall. Then I headed back to midtown Manhattan to see another Broadway revival of an off-Broadway musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco TheatreThe original star and co-writer of Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell had recently finished reprising the title role and handed it over to TV heartthrob Darren Criss (Glee)and the theatre was packed with fans of both the show and Criss. As a Hedwig-virgin (never having seen the show or the film) I knew little of what was store for me, other than that it was a neo-glam post-punk rock musical about a former East German genderqueer rock singer whose botched sex-change operation has left her the mutilated sole member of  ‘a gender of one’. 

In the event, I was transported by the wit of the book and lyrics perhaps a little more than the pastiche of the music, which perhaps inevitably felt a little tired seventeen years down the track. I imagine seeing the original off-Broadway incarnation in 1998 might have had something of the impact that The Rocky Horror Show had on me when I first saw it at the converted former Channel 7 Tele-Theatre in Fitzroy in 1975 starring Max Phipps, whose vampire-like interpretation of Frank-N-Furter imprinted itself indelibly on my young and impressionable mind. Still, I was once more impressed by the appetite for sexual and gender diversity displayd by a mostly straight-looking Broadway crowd, many of whom looked like office parties or young couples on a date night. Admittedly they were probably mostly there to see Criss; you could spot the Hedheads in contrast by their dark clothes, makeup and inevitable wigs. 

As an experienced musical theatre star, Criss himself was more than able to hold his own as a singer, hoofer and deliver of zinging one-liners, although he struck me as perhaps a little young, sculpted and cleancut for the role. It almost felt as if an element of ‘slumming it’ in the realm of genderqueerdom lent him added sex-appeal for the crowd, who went beserk whenever he twerked or flirted, and completely lost it when he finally stripped off the drag to expose a perfectly ripped torso for his final song as Hedwig’s alter ego and soul-mate Johnny Gnosis. I must admit I lost the plot at this point, as it all became a bit heavy and conceptual for me; I found myself pining for the simple, innocent, vacuous camp of Rocky Horror, which paradoxically felt more liberating than the normalising morality that seemed inherent in Hedwig’s final ‘acceptance of her true self’. Give me wigs and heels any day.

*

The next day I braved the crowds at MOMA to see Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, followed by two 1950s treats in MOMA’s ongoing film program: Douglas Sirk’s glorious Techicolour melodrama Magnificent Obsession; and a rare 3D screening of John Farrow’s classic John Wayne vehicle Hondo. 

If Yoko Ono’s popular celebrity has been enhanced by her association with John Lennon, her status as an artist has been unfairly eclipsed for the same reason. This two-way distortion has been intensified by politics: specifically the inherent politics of being a woman, being Japanese, being a peace activist, and having a reputation for being an obscure avant-garde conceptual and performance artist – all of which are more ‘well-known’ than the work itself. Of course, to ‘know something well’ is a form of not-knowing, ignorance, denial or even repression – all of which is directly relevant to Yoko’s work as well as her person.

The first MOMA exhibition exclusively devoted to her work takes as its point of departure her first ‘one-woman show’ at the museum in 1971 – a conceptual intervention which took the form of the artist claiming to have released flies in the museum grounds and inviting the public to track them through the city. The substance of the current exhbition is a remarkable survey of her work over the decade preceding that intervention. 

In fact a consistent thread throughout Yoko’s work takes the form of invitations or instructions, along with paradoxical installations, works of participatory performance art, and the use of film (especially in extremely slow motion) to explore the difference between aesthetic and routine perception. As such, her work has more in common with Dada, Surrealism and Duchamps in particular than with her contemporaries in the Pop-Art movement (Warhol being the most obvious parallel, especially in their respective use of film). Beyond this stretches the lineage of Japanese art and thought, from the tea ceremony to the Zen koan. In short: unlike Warhol or Pop, Yoko is not interested in the social phenomena of celebrity or the mass media and their trade in images, so much as in the existential phenomenology of objects and embodiment. 

Above all I was struck by the sense of an artist courageously confronting and exploring what she referred to as her own ‘shyness’ – a word that in this context has manifold implications: personal, political, psychological, cultural, sexual and gendered. Two famous performance works from 1964 reenacted or recorded this with great force. In Bag Piece, spectator-participants were invited to climb into a black cloth bag – which was fastened so that it completely enclosed them – and lie on the gallery floor, shed their clothes and move around however and for as long as they please. Meanwhile a projection on a nearby wall of Cut Piece showed a young Yoko sitting quietly on the floor onstage while audience-participants were invited to cut away pieces of her clothing with scissors (needless to say, in both works the use of the floor, clothing and silence all have distinctive Japanese cultural references).

Ironically though, given my earlier caveat about the distortion of Yoko’s reputation by her association with Lennon, perhaps the most beautiful and moving work in the exhibition for me was an extreme slow-motion film projection of John’s face gradually breaking into a smile. In part it was the sheer beauty of that face (no matter whom it belonged to); in part the revelation afforded by slow-motion of the timelessness of images, even moving ones; but undeniably also the anecdotal pathos of knowing the fate that lay in store for the man himself. What distinguishes this from comparable works by Warhol is a quality of innocence distinctive to Yoko’s oeuvre. For Warhol, mortality is something inherent in the image itself; for Yoko, slow-motion film captures an image of eternity at the heart of life. 

*

The following night I was back in Central Park at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre for The Tempest, part of The Public Theatre’s annual summer season of Shakespeare in the Park (along with a forthcoming production of Cymbeline). Despite the incipient rain, there was a great sense of occasion among the 2,000-strong crowd: a mixture of paying subscribers and those determined enough to queue early and secure a free ticket – the core purpose of the season (as initiated by The Public’s founding director Joe Papp) being to make Shakespeare available to everyone regardless of income.

In the event, the production itself was like a bad school play, and featured some frankly amateur performances. The Prospero-Miranda-Ferdinand scenes were painfully awkward; the scenes with the marooned Duke and courtiers almost unwatchable; and the closing masque of Iris, Ceres and Juno staged like a kind of eisteddford, complete with excruciatingly lame choreography and musical score. The Stephano-Trinculo-Caliban comic subplot scenes were more successful; and the Prospero-Ariel scenes had real pathos, accentuated by Sam Waterston’s somewhat shaky but still forceful presence as Prospero (a part he famously played forty years ago), in which physical and emotional fragility were poignantly heightened by a deeply felt connection with the text. If both play and role can be read as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage as a playwright, here there was a sense of an ageing actor contemplating his own twilight. When he stepped forward to deliver his final quavering appeal to the audience – ‘Let your indulgence set me free’ – I had a lump in my throat. Sometimes great works speak to us even more revealingly in productions that miss the mark completely, or in actors who identify with an aspect of their character all too closely.

Later that night after I got back to my apartment in Williamsburg I wandered down to the ferry terminal a couple of blocks away. It was a Saturday night, and there was a small gathering of revellers scattered around the park benches on the lawn overlooking the jetty. I found a place to sit and gazed out across the water at the lights of Manhattan, feeling a little like Woody Allen, but without my own version of Diane Keaton sitting there beside me. 

*

The next morning – it was a Sunday, the end of my first week in New York – I headed downtown to the Film Forum for another cinephilic indulgence: a marathon screening of Satyajit Ray’s classic Apu trilogy. Over six hours in total of beautifully restored black-and-white neo-realism, the films tell the story of a young boy who grows up in an Indian village, moves to the city with his family, moves to an even bigger city as a promising student, has a serendipitous marriage, finds love, and finally becomes a father, in the face of a series of increasingly devastating personal losses. Based on a famous Indian Bildungsroman, in some ways it’s more like a pilgrim’s progress, with a spiritual dimension and luminous beauty that set it apart from the Italian or French neo-realist films of Rossellini or Renoir that inspired it. 

Just before the last screening began of Apu’s World, I glanced at my smartphone in the darkness of the cinema, and there was an email from my wife. I began reading it, and felt my world begin to dissolve. 

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, as Prospero says at the end of the pageant in the last scene of The Tempest.

New York, my fellowship, my sense of reality, and apparently my marriage, had melted into air. 

Into thin air.


Postcard from New York 3

Sleep No More, Tony Bennett and Lady GagaHand To GodThe Flick, David Greenspan/Gertrude Stein 


My final week in New York was overshadowed by the email I had received from my wife in the cinema on the Sunday, and the flurry of communications that followed over the next five days.

Without going into details: after ten years, my marriage was over, much as my previous marriage had ended fifteen years previously. Once again I was completely blindsided, although in retrospect I should have seen it coming. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell: to lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. This is not the place to expand further on the immediate circumstances or the underlying causes of either separation, except to say that both were to some extent unconsciously self-engineered if not exactly self-inflicted. Now I veered from one emotion to another as the total and irrevocable nature of my current loss gradually became apparent.

In what follows, I make no effort to separate my impressions of the city itself or the theatre I saw there that week from my somewhat unhinged state. It had indeed become a hell of a town, and my vision was as clouded by shock, pain, grief and despair as one who wanders through the underworld – like Orpheus, to emerge at last alone.

In the words of Clive James’s recently published translation of Dante, which I carried with me on my travels: 

How harsh and bitter that place seemed to me –
Merely to think of it renews the fear –
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possbily be worse. As you shall hear
It led to good things too, eventually.

*

After a sleepless night in my sweltering third-floor box room in Williamsburg, I decided to head into Manhattan and spend the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If nothing else, continuous access to free wi-fi would at least keep me in potential communication with my wife, from whom I hadn’t heard since tentatively replying to her still somewhat veiled email the previous day. This led to a morning of torture, as delays in the subway saw me stranded underground and in a state of mounting panic and paranoia about my marriage (all my fears being subsequently confirmed when I finally heard from her again). 

When I got to the Met, its glories were imbued with a dawning sense of loss. I wandered the Greek and Roman galleries, and then the even more spectacular Ancient Egyptian wing, overwhelmed by feelings of regret, remorse and grief: how my wife would have loved these collections; how I should have asked her to come to New York with me; how we would never share such experiences again. I had taken too little care of this – and other things. And now it was too late.

Just before five o’clock – upstairs in the Italian Renaissance rooms, but unable to take in the paintings around me – I received another email from her, this time spelling things out with terrible clarity. I hastily composed a reply, attempting to bargain with her, while an amplified voice overhead announced that the museum was now closing. 

Outside on the crowded steps I could no longer access wi-fi, so I dialled her number and began leaving an incoherent voicemail message, before my voice and words failed me. Then my phone battery died. 

I got into a cab and began heading blindly downtown.

*

That night I had a ticket to see Sleep No More: the famous long-running immersive production by English company Punchdrunk at McKittrick’s Hotel. Despite my increasingly frantic state, I decided to go ahead and see the show. 

This turned out to be a disastrous mistake. To be honest, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it in any event. As the title would suggest, it’s based on Macbeth, and takes place over multiple floors in the hotel (in this respect, much like Then She Fell, reviewed in my last Postcard). Unlike that show, however, Sleep No More plays to a much larger crowd (there were at least a hundred of us the night I saw it), and is much more chaotic: the audience, left to its own devices, rapidly fragmented and followed the action, chased the actors or explored the floors, rooms and their contents at will. Moreover, every audience member was issued with a neutral mask, which had the effect of encouraging a level of display and irresponsibility which I found irritating, as people pushed past each other, interposed themselves as part of the action and got in the way of the actors. I had the impression that there was an in-crowd of afficionados who came regularly in order to hog the limelight and show off in front of the other spectators. 

Conversely, unlike Then She Fell or other more properly interactive works, the audience didn’t seem to have any designated role, and were largely ignored by the performers. In other words, it could have all happened without us; there was a kind of conventional ‘fourth wall’, which seemed to cut through the heart of the work and disconnect us from what we were watching. I found this lack of connection frustrating, and felt it added to the level of hyperactivity among certain members of the crowd.

Beyond this, the performances and choreography were much less impressive than Then She Fell, and in comparison with the latter the whole production had less to say. In short, the immersive form was more like a gimmick that had been imposed on the ghost of Shakespeare’s play – whose plot, scenes and characters were diluted to the point of cliché. The overall atmosphere, mood and design also felt clichéd: a kind of contrived decadent 1920s world that, again, seemed to have no intrinsic connection with the material. 

After an hour of mindless to-ing and fro-ing in search of something interesting to watch, I’d had enough. I was also feeling increasingly trapped in my own internal immersive nightmare. It took me another fifteen minutes to find my way back to the floor I’d entered from and escape. I re-entered the underworld of the subway, and made my way back to my box room in Williamsburg, where another sleepless night awaited me.

*

The next morning there was another painfully honest email from my wife. I replied straight away, and we arranged to meet in London on the weekend to talk things through. Then I went out for a walk, found a park and lay down under the trees, letting my body and mind catch up with the events of the past two days.

That night for a treat I took myself out to see Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall, on tour after their recent album Cheek to Cheek. They delivered a solid set of jazz, swing, lounge and cabaret standards from the 20s to the 60s, backed by two separate bands and a shared orchestra. At 88, Bennett ruled the stage like an old king, relaxed and comfortable but still in great voice and more than capable of belting it out, especially in the big solo numbers, the lion’s share of which fell to him. In this context, Gaga somewhat uncharacteristically played second fiddle, but still held her own as a Broadway-trained baby, shifting as effortlessly from idiom to idiom as she did from frock to frock during Bennett’s solos. I let the onslaught of sentiment wash over me, enjoyed the grandiose sense of occasion, and admired the effortless artistry and stylishness of two very different but eminently compatible master-performers. We shall not see their like again.

*

Wednesday proved more challenging again, emotionally and theatrically. Once more I braved the subway to midtown Manahttan, to see a matinee of Hand to God: a Broadway revival at The Booth Theatre of Robert Askins’s dazzling new play, which was originally produced at The Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011. As with Fun Home, this was a revival of the original off-Broadway production, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and featuring a central tour-de-force from Steven Boyer as the nerdy teenager Jason and his foulmouthed handpuppet alter-ego Tyrone, who apparently becomes possessed by the devil, leading to scenes of mounting chaos – sexual, aggressive and finally bordering on the psychotic and even supernatural.

To an even greater degree than Fun Home or HedwigHand to God is both a challenge and a tribute to Broadway’s capacity to confront Middle America. Mostly set in a Christian puppetry workshop in a school basement room in Texas, the play mocks not only religious and cultural hypocrisy but the entire human project to subdue, civilize or demonize our shadow-selves. In short: it gradually transforms from being a hilarious black comedy to a terrifying satire of truly Swiftian proportions. 

Boyer’s facility with the puppet and his capacity to play two opposing characters (or dual aspects of the same personality) simultaneously had me spellbound – and finally covering my eyes in horror during a final scene of frenzied mayhem, when Jason took a hammer to his own right hand in an attempt to save himself and others from its increasingly deranged clutches. This was preceded by a graphic handpuppet-sex-scene between him and his equally mild-mannered girfriend (wearing her own insatiable handpuppet for the occasion), which the audience found side-splitting but I found almost unbearable to watch, now firmly in the grip of my own demons. 

I sat in the auditorium shaking until everyone else had left, then stumbled out into the crowded streets. I had nowhere to go, but I couldn’t face the maelstrom of people and traffic, so I headed back into the maw of the subway, feeling like a drowning man being dragged down by the undertow. 

I finally emerged again on the Lower West Side in the more peaceful ambience of Greenwich Village, not far from a small off-Broadway venue where I had a ticket to see another play a few hours later – although at this point I couldn’t imagine ever setting foot inside another theatre again.  Instinctively I headed for a park in Washington Square; as I entered its green haven, the tears came, and I sank down onto a lawn under the trees. People were sitting around me on the grass listening to a jazz trio busking nearby; no one seemed disturbed by the man weeping uncontrollably in their midst. It felt like a river that would never run dry; words, images and thoughts dissolved in the flow of feelings. Eventually this too came to an end, and I stopped crying, got up, dropped a five-dollar note into the trumpet-player’s instrument case, and walked off to find something to eat before the show. Life goes on.

*



The play I saw that night at the intimate Barrow Street Theater was a sweetly subtle relief after the lurid horror show of Hand to God. Moreover, I was in Greenwich Village, and off-Broadway at last; it was almost like being in Carlton or Fitzroy, and going to a familiar Melbourne independent theatre venue like La Mama or Eleventh Hour. 

Annie Baker’s The Flick was first staged at Playwrights Horizons in 2013, and won the Pulitzer Prize last year. The remount at the Barrow featured the same cast (Alex Hanna, Louisa Krause and Aaron Clifton Moten), designer (David Zinn) and director (Sam Gold), whose similarly understated approach to Fun Home distinguished him as one of that rare breed of directors who put their playwrights and actors ahead of their own creative egos. 

Indeed, direction, writing and performances in The Flick were so understated that I felt like I could have been watching an off-Broadway equivalent to Tsai Ming-liang’s arch, slow-burning Taiwanese masterpiece of minimalist cinema Goodbye Dragon Inn, which like Baker’s play is set in a run-down old movie house. Unlike Tsai’s film however – the continuous action (or inaction) of which is set in a cinema in Tapei during its last 90-minute screening, during which it follows various patrons and employees in and out of the auditorum and elsewhere around the building, using long static shots and almost no dialogue – The Flick is set in a cinema in Massachusetts, consists of a discontinuous series of long and largely static scenes (almost all of which take place inside the auditorium after various movie screenings), focuses on just three characters (who are all employees), and is all talk (albeit of the most deadpan and desultory kind). Behind both works of course lurks The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s haunting cinematic ode to small-town life, growing up, nostalgia and indeed cinema itself – as crystallized in the form of the local independent, single-screen movie house, typically specializing in cult, arthouse or recent release re-runs. In the case of The Flick, this image was simply but brilliantly realised in Zinn’s design by putting a hyperrealistic auditorium onstage with rows of seats facing the theatre audience so that the fourth wall became a virtual movie screen. 

Perhaps there’s something about the vanishing institution of the movie house, the medium of the moving image, and even the materiality of film itself that uniquely suits the theme of time’s passing as their privileged subject-matter. If so, Annie Baker’s play and Sam Gold’s production (the two seem inseparable) seize on this elective affinity between cinema and time, and bend it towards their own highly original theatrical ends. Certainly the studiously slow pace of this production apparently divided audiences and critics alike during its previous run. The first act alone ran for ninety minutes; the entire show including interval came down at just over three hours; but the real challenge and beauty of play and production lay in their quietly observational tone. For me however there was nothing gratuitious or enervating about this measured pace and tone, which perfectly captured the situation of three lonely people suffering from a very contemporary form of melancholia and trying to connect with each other in the context of a workplace and an economy that seemed to be relentlessly dissolving all traditional forms of connection, solidarity, value or meaning – a condition which the sociologist Durkheim analysed in the late 19th century under the concept of ‘anomie’, particularly in his study of suicide. 

No doubt my own situation made me even more receptive to the mood of this work. Not that it made me suicidal: on the contrary I found it strangely restorative after the hallucinatory vortex of Hand to God. Paradoxically, it gave me a context for the loss of connection, solidarity, value or meaning which I was currently experiencing in the dissolution of my marriage, especially in the heightened circumstances in which I found myself – doubly alone, so to speak, and infinitely isolated in this vast unfamilar city where I knew almost no-one.

After the madness of the afternoon, I went home calmly that evening; but for the third night running, I still couldn’t sleep. The demons raised by Hand to God continued to torment me. 

*

The next day, there was another sad but resolute email from my wife. I responded as best I could, bowing to the inevitable. Then I headed back into Greenwich Village and met up with the one friend I had in New York, an Australian actor who’d lived there for the last ten years. She sized me up, then announced that she’d meet me again that evening outside the theatre where she was performing and give me some of her husband’s sleeping pills. She also insisted that I move out of my box room in Williamsburg the next morning and spend the day at her apartment on the Lower East Side before I flew out of New York that night to meet my wife in London the following day.

We said goodbye, she left to pick up her son from school, and I went back to Washington Square Park and listened to the same jazz trio under the trees. A couple of hours later I met my friend outside the theatre a few blocks away and collected the sleeping pills as instructed. Then I walked a few blocks further through the heart of the downtown off-Broadway district to the Connelly Theater in the East Village, where Target Margin Theater were presenting a Gertrude Stein season. Tonight’s offering was Composition…Master Pieces…Identity: two lectures and a poem, all written by Stein, and presented by off-Broadway legend David Greenspan.

‘Composition as Explanation’ was a lecture given by Stein in 1926 about the paradoxical relationship between artists and their era. Greenspan recited it from memory, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and pants, and sitting in a chair. His somewhat feline delivery and demeanour made no attempt to imitate Stein, but he held me captivated, even as my mind alternately wrestled and danced with her words. 

Stein’s language typically combines a kind of abstract prose-poetry, biting wit, passages of lucid analysis and what might clinically be termed ‘perseveration’ – in this case the repetition of words and phrases beyond their apparent terms of reference, relevance, appropriateness, logic or even grammar. The opening sentences of the lecture, for example, read as follows (the entire text can easily be found on the internet): 

There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

If this looks dry and even opaque, Greenspan’s playful delivery brought out shades of meaning and musicality that had me hanging not just on every word but every inflection and flicker of expression, from his voice to his face and hands. 

The second piece, ‘What Are Master-Pieces, and Why are There So Few of Them?’, was a lecture dating from 1936, and delving more deeply into the psychology of creation, and in particular what might be called the antinomy between artistic creation and personal identity. As a striking passage from the lecture has it:

The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation.

Greenspan simply read this lecture seated behind a table. As he read, though, the spirit of Stein and her words began to inhabit and intoxicate me, and I felt increasingly liberated – from myself and at least potentially from my own creative and psychological habits. I had a sense too of Stein as the great enabler, to whom the greatest Modernist writers and painters– from Pound to Picasso – were so singularly drawn.  

The final piece, ‘Identity – A Poem’, also from 1936, was the only one actually written for theatrical performance (although of course lectures are also performances of a kind). Broken up into a series of randomly numbered ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’, it continued and developed the themes of the earlier lecture, including the repeated refrain: ‘I am I because my little dog knows me.’ 

This time Greenspan was on his feet, his whole body and voice fully animated, like a kind of marionette possessed by the soul of Stein herself. There was still not the slightest trace of impersonation or even ‘acting’, at least in the sense of ‘characterisation’; but I felt in the presence of a master performer who had timed the formal development of the show and the progressive revelation of his craft to perfection. 

I found this final work, and the accumulated impact of the whole evening, exhilarating and deeply moving. The final ‘scenes’ and lines of ‘Identity’ spoke to me very directly, not just about creativity, but about life’s transitions:

Act 1 Scene 1.

The necessity of ending is not the necessity of beginning.

Chorus: How finely that is said.

Scene II.

An end of a play is not the end of a day.

Scene IV.

After giving.

*

With those abrupt and enigmatic last words, the performance itself was over; but as I walked out onto East 4th Street, I had the glimmer of a sense that things might not be over for me, if I could find the need to begin again. 


Back in my box room in Williamsburg, I took a sleeping pill and blessed my friend. Tonight I would sleep; there would be no demons. Tomorrow I would pack my things, take a cab across Williamsburg Bridge to her apartment, and spend the day there, recuperating. And tomorrow night I would leave New York – wonderful town, helluva town – and fly across the Atlantic to face my wife, and my future.


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