Saturday, May 30, 2009

UOW Review: Talking To Terrorists


Written by Robin Soans
Directed by Mark Haslam
Assistant Director Emma Mcmanus

Verbatim theatre is a strange thing. To my mind it is the antithesis of what theatre aspires to, in that it (often under the guise of being objective) uses the words of real individuals or documents to present a kind of overview of a particular subject; a presentation of reality. To me, theatre is much more about an aesthetic and visceral engagement with the world than a summary of situations or people that exist in it. Surely that is the domain of the documentary and the nightly news, not the theatre. As Simon identified in Version 1.0’s Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue, objectivity in verbatim work is highly suspect. Simply by framing it as theatrical, the work loses any pretence to objectivity, seemingly undercutting itself. So in light of this, what is the deal? Why bother? What does it offer us?

Talking to Terrorists, in Mark Haslam’s hands, offers us a human connection. The performers relate this text directly to us, looking us in the eyes and sharing the experience with us; something a documentary or interview could never do. It is staged simply in a beige box and the performers are mostly static throughout their monologues and scenes, entering and exiting either from a door upstage or a second level staircase above it. It has no pretense to high aesthetic ideals, the focus is purely on the performers and their communication with us. To quote the program…“though the space, actors and production might all be built on artifice, the truth of the experience remains.”

And the truth of the experience is distressing. Talking to Terrorists is the product of 12 months of interviews with individuals involved with or having some experience of terrorism. In a broad sweep this covers child soldiers in Uganda, British politicians and ambassadors, members of the IRA and UVF, Palestinian Miltia, Kurdish separatists and aid workers. The complexities of the subject matter are done away with in favour of the emotional core of the experience, the consequence being that some of the most affecting moments are not driven by horror but by recognition: giving a face to something that is usually represented as faceless. It is the domestic insight as someone slops a cup of tea, accidently picks up the wrong wine glass or has a tiff with their partner that really brings terror home to us.

The nuances of the text are handled gracefully by the cast (my year); it is delightful to see a university production where every single performance is on the same level, since usually it is a bit of a mixed bag. It is incredibly exciting to see how they have progressed through this process and full credit to Haslam for bringing this out in them.

In relation to my own practice, Talking to Terrorists reminded me that theatre is a two way street, a shared experience and, while I am still wary of verbatim theatre, a beautiful way to be informed and learn.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sad News For Sydney - Neil Armfield to leave Company B

Neil Armfield to leave Company B

The gist is that 2010 will be Neil Armfield’s last season as artistic director of Belvoir St Theatre. This is sad news to me. Since coming to University and exploring the theatre landscape of Sydney, Belvoir has been a source of some amazing experiences. The first show I saw there, Benedict Andrews' "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?", remains to this day my favourite theatrical production. However, Armfield’s own “Scorched” would be a close contender, and many other Belvoir shows would not be far behind. One of my lecturers once described Belvoir plays under Armfield’s direction as “absolutely reeking of humanity”, and this is why I think they have been so successful.

The new artistic director is not expected to be announced for another six months or so, and it will be exciting to see the direction the company now takes, but after 15 years, it’s going to be quite an adjustment.

- Simon

Review: Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue (Version 1.0)

Deeply Offensive & Utterly Untrue is Version 1.0’s inquiry into the Cole inquiry. Distilling an 8500-page document into an engaging hour and a half of theatre can’t have been easy, but that is what this unique company has achieved. The play was first performed in the depths of Carriage Works’ Bay 20 in Sydney, and what we see here with the touring production is an expansion of that work. I saw the show twice in its original production, and was very excited when I heard it was coming to Wollongong, not least of all because it is a shining example of hard work in the independent theatre scene paying off. Version 1.0 have been recognised, as of last year, as a key arts organization and receive triennial funding. They make one realise that all the mock grant applications we do at uni are perhaps significantly more important than our other assessments.

The events discussed are astounding. At the same time as John Howard was declaring that a war with Iraq was necessary to dethrone a cruel and harsh dictator, AWB was paying up to $300 million in kickbacks to the Iraqi government. Aside from analysing the inquiry itself, the first point that this play is trying to make by its very existence, is that these are massive events which have been swept under the carpet very quickly. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair. Here we are talking about hypocrisy on a much larger scale going unpunished.

Version 1.0’s handling of the material of the inquiry is deft. Stagings of many interviews and speeches from the inquiry and surrounding media are combined with direct discussion of the issues by the cast, which together bring lucidity to the proceedings. Clarity is a key point in this production. At all times, the details of those being interviewed are available on screens either side of the stage (this is quite amusing when the performers are talking as themselves), the images are all clear and crisp, and even when a scene is accompanied by large scale AV one is never put off balance. What I find interesting about the form of the work, especially as I am currently working on a piece of verbatim theatre, is that although Version 1.0 use much of the exact text of the inquiry document, as we enter the theatre we are reminded by messages on the video screens that “every word in this performance is true”, the words are so obviously interpreted that one could never define it as a verbatim work. The example that sticks out in my mind is the interview with John Howard that is accompanied by those playing the interviewers stroking him and offering him wine. The company makes no claims to objectivity, yet I think those who label their style as “documentary theatre” should be wary of the connotations of the term.

With the exception of a few moments that have lost their impact, such as the reference to Mohamed Haneef’s SIM card, the work still feels quite fresh in spite of its age. The newly added material, including speeches from Kevin Rudd and quotes from David Marr’s recent assessment of the events assist in achieving this relevancy. Unfortunately, I think that some of the beauty of the piece was lost by placing it in a more traditional proscenium arch theatre, which lacked the depth of the Carriage Works space. Not only did it mean that moments of the piece which had previously been separated merged together in the centre of the stage, it also meant that the mechanical elements of the theatre were hidden in the fly gallery and side stage, rather than laid bare for all to see which took away from the impact of the clever use of space. Whereas in Carriage Works, you could see all the elements from start, which made it more startling when they surprised you with a sandbag you hadn’t expected, or a light that appeared out of seemingly nowhere, here these moment felt like traditional theatre tricks. The venue also created some practical problems in terms of visibility. I was quite far back in the theatre and found it quite difficult to read the smaller screens either side of the stage, which at times contained important information. However, these are the problems one faces with a touring production, and for anyone who hadn’t seen the original I am sure that these would not have factored into one’s engagement with the work.

I could not finish this review without mentioning my favourite moment of the play, that being the live feed of a mouse attempting to eat cheese off a mouse trap being projected from two different angles from the two massive screens which dominated the set. The superb video elements are the work of Sean Bacon who has seamlessly integrated the visuals into the production through these two large screens, the two smaller screens already mentioned, and the more subtle television screen at the back of the stage showing footage of the trial of Saddam Hussein. Version 1.0 have a knack for using vision to offer fresh perspectives, as they do for breaking down complex documents into digestible theatre.

- Simon

Saturday, May 23, 2009

UOW Review: pre]paradise/sorry nOw

PhotobucketWritten by RW Fassbinder
Directed by Christopher Ryan
Assistant Director Sanja Simic

In Manchester England during the mid 60’s, Ian Brady, an office clerk, and his work mate come lover Myra Hindley kidnapped and murdered 5 children. The children were raped and brutalised before their deaths, their bodies were dumped in the moors. Brady and Hindley were seemingly striving for a kind of fascist purity through their sadomasochistic acts and serial killings. A good indicator of the kinds of values they tried to embody is Brady’s reading material; Hitler’s Mein Kamf and The Marquis de Sade’s Justine. In pre]paradise/sorry nOw Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German auteur best known for his radical film-making, uses the Moor’s murders as a tool to critique the dream of social paradise; the figures of Brady and Hindley stalk through scenes of oppressive violence and sexual perversion. No hope, no kindness, just people. It is an unrelenting and harrowing work which reverberates today when considering the increasing number of cases like that of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his daughter as a sexual slave in his basement for more than 20 years.

Chris Ryan (the Sydney Front, Version 1.0) has, in this version of pre]paradise , created a work deeply concerned with Fascism. He avoids signposting this as such however as none of the costumes or paraphernalia refer to the fascist aesthetic politic, instead it is the world of Andy Warhol’s Factory, that Avant Garde chic. It references several of Warhol’s works from the 60’s; his film Blow Job, the product pieces (Brillo, Coca Cola bottles) and the Campbell’s soup cans are all used to particularly devastating effect. The work instead deals with fascism on a more visceral level. The performers belt out their text, almost every moment in this work is seemingly delivered from the metaphorical lectern which, I’ll admit, is completely exhausting. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach it if it weren’t for the delicate image work and choreography which sweetened (somewhat disturbingly) the acting style. That being said, the moments in which the personality of a few odd performers bubbled through were a welcome relief, a breather before the cycle of brutality started again.

This is a structurally and aesthetically powerful work featuring committed and passionate young performers from UOW’s Faculty of Creative Arts. These performers are my peers which is actually very exciting. Special mention to Emma Lockhart-Wilson’s murky lighting design and Rob Hughes’ intelligent AV work, both of whose contribution found an aching beauty amidst the horror of the onstage action.


Ps. Over the next few weeks there will be a number of reviews of UOW performances. After carefully considering the politics of reviewing student work, Simon and I have decided to do so despite our personal involvement. As after all, this blog is meant to not only be a place for discussion, but a record of our emerging arts practice, a mapping of our personal interests, and what is more relevant to our interests than our own work and the work of our peers? Not only that, but when else would we get an opportunity to see a work by Fassbinder, or indeed any of the other productions looming over the next few weeks. If anyone has any objections or thoughts on this matter, we’ll be happy to chat about it further. Just comment.

This play operated on quite a high intellectual level. The connections that Fassbinder has drawn in his text between the Brady/Hindley case and West German post-war experience are already quite complex, and with the added layer of the Warhol referencing, there is quite a lot to think about. However, the reason this play was so successful for me was that in the end, it was not about what the play made me think, but what the play made me feel. It demonstrated to me the strength of theatre medium to viscerally affect you. About three quarters of the way through, I was finding the play hard work. As Mark pointed out, the onslaught of the text was quite exhausting, and I was wondering if the play would ever shift pace. It was at this point that possibly the most beautiful piece of 80s pop burst out of the speakers and the entire cast, of 30 or so performers, turned the stage into a nightclub. Rarely have I felt such relief in the theatre. I relaxed as for three minutes I was given release from the violence. The play then shifted immediately back into one of the most horrifying moments I have ever seen on stage as Brady screams obscenities and attacks with an axe handle a child who is slowly backing away whilst Myra films the event, giving us a live feed close-up of the horror on the boy’s face. We are left with The Smiths’ beautiful “Suffer Little Children” as the details of the murders are projected onto the back wall, whilst Ian and Myra make love against the back wall. I felt completely hollow. It occurred to me then, that the whole way through my emotions had been manipulated leading up this moment. I had to feel exhausted, so that I could then feel so relieved, so that I could then be so horrified. Chris Ryan’s greatest strength I think is that he understands so well how to use theatre to affect people in this manner.

In an emerging practice sense, it is also interesting to me that he uses the form to reflect the content. Mark has already pointed the way the language was used, and the layering of the imagery seemed to me to be doing a similar thing. A friend commented to me that at times you didn’t know where to look. I thought this was a clear decision to disconcert the audience. The content is obviously disconcerting, why should the form not reflect that?

The question I am left with however is that of intellectual engagement. Is it ok, that one’s view of the show is completely changed by reading the director’s note? Is it ok if I only engage with the Brady/Hinley story, rather than the grander narrative that is being attacked? Is it still worth exploring post-war German experience? My thoughts have always been that as far as Chris Ryan is concerned, it doesn’t matter what you engage with, as long as you engage. However, I have spoken to others who question the point of staging a work concerning particular themes, in this case that of West German experience etc., if these themes don’t come through without reading the programme. I am yet to reach a solid conclusion on the subject.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Gatz


Gatz, as in James Gatz, as in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This particular incarnation of Gatz is a six and a half hour production by New York company Elevator Repair Service (apparently named for the occupation artistic director John Collins was predicted to fulfill after a high school aptitude test). It is not an adaption of the novel, it IS the novel, read in full by the company within the backdrop of a musty office complete with filing cabinets and boxes of paper no one ever reads. At first, when performer Scott Sheperd discovers the novel on his desk and begins to read from it, the world of this office still exists; his co workers mill about throwing letters in the bin or reading on the couch; which is totally absorbing and exhilarating. But gradually, his co workers transform into the characters from the novel forming relationships and positions that correspond to the text then finally speaking lines from it as if they were their own. The world of the office becomes the world of Gatsby, or rather the narrator of the novel Nick Carraway.

It is at this point, about an hour into the piece, that it all starts to go wrong. As soon as the staged reality of the office is subsumed by the relationships of the novel, Gatz becomes a plain adaption of the novel, acted out and spoken with little use of the environment. It is then that the performance becomes increasingly (… and increasingly) more boring. Any interest is generated by the beautiful text, its astute observations and characteristations, not by the performance of it. Which begs the question: why bother, why not just read it?

I’m glad I did see it performed if only because I probably never would have read the book on my own accord. I enjoyed the wryness in the writing, the mythic proportions of Gatsby next to the ordinary nervousness of narrator Carraway, but this has nothing to do with Elevator Repair Service or even Scott Sheperd's measured reading of the work, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald I admired after the performance, the writing and not the theatre.

This really pissed me off. It added up to a work being staged and not interpreted, which is Simon’s constant gripe about text based work in Sydney. In this situation nobody comes out untouched, the writing loses something essential and the creatives attached to it seem dull or uninterested in the work. Although The Hayloft Project’s 3xSisters down in Melbourne is getting insanely mixed reviews, from the sound of it at least it tried to DO something. I rather get something horribly wrong than do nothing at all.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

David Williamson?

Today, DW (as he is affectionately known... maybe... by anyone who might be affectionate of him) has made it clear that he feels ill at ease with the direction that STC and indeed theatre in general is heading. He is uncomfortable with a perceived shift of focus towards the director as auteur and chief artist involved in theatrical production, citing Barrie Kosky as main offender. He instead falls back on facts and figures, insinuating that the 20 million dollars he has made for the STC must count for something. Anyway read the article and decide for yourself.

Earlier this evening, in a fit of rage I described him to a friend as "an irrelevant, upper class, self serving tit mouse." and went on to infer that he was "a backwards, stagnated and audience pandering fool".... but maybe that was a little harsh.

Any thoughts?


Saturday, May 9, 2009

project:ALICE | Review


project:ALICE was a mixed bag combining club culture, fashion, spoken word art and audiovisual elements to re make Lewis Carroll’s novel for Generation Y, using their (read our/my) experiences to reinterpret this classic work. Under the direction of Mark Haslam, performance poets Bravo Child and Cook ‘n’ Kitch embody in verse, monologue and hip hop an explosion of Alice’s character, searching for contemporary resonances with the “over stimulated generation”. This Alice is a club hopper, a pill popper, a traveler not a tourist, a myspace junkie and pretty fucked up as well.

The technical elements were superb, Toby Knyvett’s lighting design consisting of a semicircle of large poles with evenly spaced lights filling up the space, as if plucked directly from the Big Day Out, which functioned not just to light the performers but also as a constant counterpart to the pulsing rhythm of the sound design. The AV was (shock) brilliantly interwoven into the work as a multifaceted interface of televisions and computer monitors, vision was streamed live to it from mobile phones, the performers interacted with each other on the screens, a butterfly of light flitted across them and their unhealthy blue glow lit much of the action onstage. It was exciting to see the technology working inseparably from the work, instead of being a lazy tack on (see Ladybird review).

The performers were obviously more in their comfort zones when delivering poetry and relying simply on the pattern of words in their mouths without labouring them with actorly intention, which was a pity since it made the more personal moments of Alice’s monologues seem melodramatic. At these moments where I could have related to her experiences I balked. This was perhaps why I took such an issue with this work in the end.

I have a major problems with a work trying to define me, the blanket term Generation Y sits uncomfortably on my shoulders. By trying to tap into a zeitgeist the work ultimately became quite alienating and I left thinking that it just wasn’t made for me, but then maybe I need to club on pills more often. The closing moments offered not much more than the feeling of ‘we’re all individuals and it’s ok to be you’, which I found slightly na├»ve. It touched on contemporary malaise, listlessness and boredom, but I wanted to see this notion held up and examined, not put aside for Facebook jokes and more things that rhyme with clitoris. I don’t think the solution is that easy.



I didn’t feel as affronted by the content of this show. I felt the piece presented a mash-up of what the artists involved consider to be “Gen Y Experience” but at no point did it attempt to convince me that these were my experiences, although at times I found myself in them. A message of individualism emerged in the final scenes, however I engaged more with the striking word play it was embedded in, and came away from the piece with a sense of the stories and experiences, rather than the ideals, that were presented.

That being said, I dropped in and out of this performance and I think this was due mainly to the performances. In the beginning I was alienated by both performers. I found Bravo Child’s voice to be harsh and grating to the ear, whilst Cook ‘n’ Kitch seemed simply, for want of a better word, loud. I got the feeling I was being yelled at but wasn’t quite sure what I’d done to deserve it. As the show progressed, it became apparent that for Bravo, this had been a choice as he explored pretty much the entire range of his voice over the course of the performance, but for Cook ‘n’ Kitch, the volume continued. However, due to her complete dedication this became less of an issue. I found it fascinating watching two performers who completely owned what they were presenting. Cook ‘n’ Kitch’s "throw myself at every moment" style was often engaging, but it seemed to hinder the more nuanced moments of the show as Mark has already pointed out. When the performance and text matched the show was gripping. However, there were many times when the performers’ over the top style seemed to jar with the text and as a result I was immediately alienated.

A special mention needs to be made of the beautiful scene when Alice, unable to piece herself back together, climbs to the top of the jungle gym and lashes out at a TV resulting in a downpour of tiny crystals. It was a stunning image.

What is exciting about this work as an emerging artist however is the process. The play was devised by director Mark Haslam and the performers themselves. There are no actors in this work, you are often watching the writers themselves deliver the text, and all this is performed on an ethereal set which at times seemed as small as a TV screen and at others as large as a warehouse. The result was a raw work full of energy, which created some truly beautiful and some truly awkward moments but this is the nature of brave concepts. I enjoyed the risk.