Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Peter Craven's Total Bullshit

Here is a link. Read it then read on.

In his article Peter Craven derides a new trend he percieves in Australian theatre, a trend which he lables as "talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays." Talented directors like Benedict Andrews and Barrie Kosky. According to Craven their productions War of the Roses, Season At Sarsparilla and Women of Troy are some of the worst offenders in a director led revolt against the text. He suggests that these directors "often...cut their teeth with student theatre and have been too narcissistic to grow up" and indeed that "It's much easier to treat student actors like puppets and to improvise a text than it is to treat Judy Davis like that. Most cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings with classics make Joanna Murray-Smith look like Racine on a good day"

As a burgeoning director, working at present in student productions, cutting my teeth as it were: I think Peter Craven is full of shit. His article shows a willing blindness to new playwrighting, an obvious penchant for the naturalistic and perhaps worst of all an outdated attitude to the artform itself. Poisonous attitudes such as his are what stunts the theatrical community, and are not (as i'm sure he sees it) a heroic belief of the sanctity of illusion. Any person working in the artform that dismisses the work of Robert Wilson as "mime-oriented experimentalism" is not only ill-informed and a lazy researcher but a complete fucking idiot, and the fact that his pompous wank of an article was published at all is what is indicative of real issues in Australian theatre.

His article bears several similarities with David Williamson's back earlier in the year, in which the big DW accused the STC of only programming capital T theatre, the theatre of Barrie Kosky. At the time on theperf I accused DW of being an antiquated tit-mouse, not knowing what a tit-mouse was, but finding the insult fitting nevertheless. Since finding out a tit-mouse is actually a small insect-eating passerine bird of the family Paridae, found in woodland areas throughout the world, maybe i missed the mark a little. But I think the sentitment was still there and as such I would like to declare that Peter Craven is too, an utter tit-mouse.

What he is suggesting about student theatre is so patronisingly infruiating that it needs to be explored further. I think that (in between the lines) he's calling me young, telling me to grow up, get a real job, get into realism, direct Joanna Murray-Smith, forget about Sarah Kane, forget about Performance Space, Romeo Castellucci and The Black Lung, forget about 3xsisters and Marius Von Mayenburg, forget about the Sydney Front and Robert Lepage and Open City, you'll grow out of it, wake up to yourself, tuck your shirt in, all the people you admire are not artists but arrogant wankers, what you like will take you nowhere, give up the dream, give it away, theatre is not for you Mark Rogers, you who cannot write for the stage and as such must to find other ways of communicating, theatre is not for you, it for other people, it is for Joanna Murray-Smith and for the big DW, it is a literary theatre where you Mark Rogers have no place.

Well Peter... get fucked.
I direct plays, plays written by writers, but I try to bring to plays written by writers an attention to aesthetic detail, an interest in formal innovation, an awareness of the power of direct audience contact, a willingness to delve into abstraction, a search for some kind of truth however we get there, a hope not to create a theatre that has been perfected, but one that is ever evolving and fluid, one that listens to the artists around it and filling it and one that doesn't simply put all the faith into one individual writer. Theatre is made by many people, not one, and they are all important.

I listened to a radio national podcast of Edward Albee's recent talk at STC a while ago and when he said that directors are interpretive artists and not creative artists (or something to that effect) i thought; how interesting to hear this kind of statement, he thinks about it like a heirachy, wow, that's not the way people think anymore. But obviously I was wrong. Peter Craven does.

Now that was a rant, yes. But am I unjustified? Is this what he's saying? Shoud I just wake up to myself and get my hands on a copy of Don's Party? What does everyone else think? Please comment, I need to talk about this.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A two way interview with Simon and Mark, regarding The Hayloft Project’s The Only Child.

M: Simon. The Only Child?

S: Good play. I had a really great time, I loved the comedy, thought the acting was all quite strong and design was beautiful. There were some glorious images (flowers) and the whole thing felt pristine.

M: Pristine? Do you care to elaborate?

S: You walked into the intimate Downstairs Belvoir theatre, to the serene sound of a shower running into the stark porcelain of a claw foot bath. The bath sat atop perfectly polished floorboards. Obviously, this was the bathroom of someone successful. We soon learned that it was the home of Rita and Alfred, a well-to-do couple with a harrowing secret.

M: I’m yawning already.


S: I know right? When you dumb it down to its simplest elements, it’s a fairly conventional plot. But the story itself in fact takes many twists, and at times a dark comedy comes out moving it away from the simple story it could easily have been

M: It’s an Ibsen adaption yeah?

S: Yeah, not that I know anything about the original, which doesn’t seem to be a problem with this production as the story is quite far removed from the play that inspired it.

M: What did you like about it?

S: I’ve talked already about the comedy, which I think was one of the most striking elements of the play. I’m a great lover of awkwardness on stage, and the character of Henrik (Gareth Davies) was awkwardness personified. It was as if he was in a different play altogether, but rather than this being a problem, it in fact provided a great counter point to the heavy burden the text placed on the other characters.

M: Heavy burden you say. What burden?

S: Alfred and Rita have a child, Eyolf, who at the beginning of the play is missing. This is all the more worrying because Eyolf has a disability, one of his legs is crippled. The play begins with Rita and Alfred’s sister Asta in the bathroom discussing the incident, as well as Alfred’s impending return. It is clear from the start that Alfred and Rita’s relationship is far from harmonious. This is then compounded when Eyolf is declared dead, and we watch as Alfred falls to pieces, unable to leave the bath, let alone the bathroom. Throw into the mix Henrick, who is in love with Asta and gloriously unable to deal with people, and you have The Only Child, an hour and a half long investigation of guilt and recrimination in modern relationships

M: Did you love it? Why don’t you marry it?

S: But there’s the frustrating thing. It was so close to being marriage worthy, but it never quite got to the altar. Was this your experience? Am I being too harsh?

M: No you’re not too harsh. I thought it was great too. But I left wishing it’d been better. In the language, the content, the images, the form was such potential. But ultimately I felt like I’d seen the veneer of a show, the surface of an emotional impact. Never something as raw and painful as I was sure it would be. I think it glossed over all the nasty bits.

S: Do you mean in the text or the production?

M: Well the text was nasty as fuck. Thomas Henning and Simon Stone’s adaption of the Ibsen is a cutting look at moral collapse with a vicious wit and sly humour. So that rules out the text.

S: So it was the production then?

M: Set and lighting you mean?

S: Yeah, and the direction.

M: Direction then. All the theatrical elements made this play easier to bear. As you’ve mentioned they were gorgeous and really effective. But to the wrong end. The transition states, the ethereal images and stage pictures made the raw content disappear. I wanted to be rubbed raw by the uncomfortable truth of Alfred and Rita’s relationship, by their inadequacies mirroring my own personal failings but instead, everything was working to placate me.

S: Even the nudity, did that feel like gloss? Surely that was visceral. For those who haven’t seen it, there was a fair bit of nudity.

M: The naked bodies were beautiful first, visceral second. And this was to do with how they were framed. Despite Downstairs Belvoir being a tiny little space and even though I was two feet away from the naked actors, they seemed pictorial and not physical beings. Beautiful but, AHHH, I didn’t care. Is that fair enough, am I just insane or something. They were naked for ages why didn’t I get the sense it was raw?


S: I think you’re right, and I think it was partially to do with the beautiful framing, the warm lights shining back of the polished floor to give their bodies a sort of sheen rather than leaving them stark and grotesque. With the possible exception of Henrick’s initial forays into nudity.

M: Yeah that worked. I feel guilty for slamming it this way. Because I think it is such an achievement to make abundant nudity onstage beautiful first, it never felt tacky. Always an organic development of the staging. It was stunning really. It’s just that it didn’t serve the text in the right way. It slightly backed off from really being effective.

S: I think that was the main thing that stopped this production from being absolutely devastating, was that it backed off at all the wrongs moments. Just as I was on the edge of my seat, there was a blackout or a joke to let me off the hook. The most obvious example was when Rita joined Alfred in the bath and began to seduce him.

M: And…….blackout.

S: I was left thinking why didn’t they just have sex? It would have horrific in the wake of what had come before. But we seem to have lost sight of our interview form. Did you have a problem with the transitions?

M: Not really. I accepted the blackouts as a convention that was consistent, they weren’t overly long. It was the inbetween images and subtle shifts that annoyed me. FUCK SIMON. This is so frustrating. I loved it. I loved The Only Child. It is a confident, aesthetically assured, devastatingly performed production by a young company under the restless direction of Simon Stone. I hated The Promise. I thought this Hayloft work was awesome. BUT. It could have been so much better and all I can think about is What If? What IF? WHAT IF? This sucks.

S: I had the same problem. In the past couple of days I’ve had several conversations about the play where half way through, I realise I sound like I hated it. Which I didn’t. It’s just that it could have been one of the shows of the year, and it just didn’t quite get there.

M: Everyone should see it though yeah?

S: Absolutely. They’re one of the most important companies in Australia at the moment, and this is further of evidence of that.

M: So we keep hearing. I’m glad that this time, Hayloft and Simon Stone lived up to hype. But they could have exceeded it.

S: ARGH! I’m normally frustrated when things are bad, not when they are good.


Simon and Mark

Monday, September 14, 2009

UOW Report: grads around the country this september

Where are our grads at? Well apparently to opposing ends of the country. One up in Brisbane for Under The Radar 09 and another group down in Melbourne for the Fringe festival. And the shows are on a basically the same time. So if you have unlimited access to plane travel and are a UOW grad enthusiast then this is what you should do…

First up:

The Red Room by Malcolm Whittaker



In The Red Room a solo performance is longing to and resistant to take place. It is a dance between the unexplainable desire for the spotlight and to hide in the black hole at its edge. It’s about looking, being looked at and love as much as it is fear.

“A stand-up comic quipped in a past US presidential election that the person who should run country should be the person that wants it the least, the person that has to be dragged kicking and screaming into The White House. I think a similar disposition is required of performance. A certain resistance to being in the performance situation. Part of you that does not want to there to hold up an integrity outside of oneself. This work is important to me because I believe there is a certain necessity for resistance and terror to stimulate creativity and sincerity in both process and performance. Working with the fear avoids the work slipping into a vacuum, exhausted of purpose, presence and necessity.” (Malcolm Whittaker, Creator/Performer)

Warehouse, Metro Arts, 109 Edward St Brisbane
Monday 21 September – Friday 25 September, 6:30pm

Malcolm’s been overseas for a while but has managed to line this up for himself. It’ll probably be awkward, low-fi and shitty looking but that’s what he does best. Sticking his head under a lampshade. Magic.

Next up, all the way down in Melbourne….


Nature League in North Melbourne by Tiger Two Times (Amy Wilson, Georgie Meagher, Megan Garrett-Jones and Natalie Randall)

Retreat into the hothouse. Play in the garden. Help to cultivate a surreal world. Nature League are here to make you radiant, tranquil and relaxed.

Performance group Tiger Two Times merge installation and theatre in their investigation of constructed environments. Inspired by the ‘fake nature' found all over the city, from pot plants to community vegetable gardens, and even jungle-themed lounge-rooms, this work delves into human interaction with natural spaces. Questions arise over our desire for greenery - is it purely aesthetic, or environmental? And, how many pot plants are needed to offset your carbon footprint? Nature League is an inquisitive and earnest organisation. Nature League is a retreat. But what will happen when the reality of outside pervades this sunny fantasy?

Fringe Hub - The Warehouse521 Queensberry Street North Melbourne
25th Sept – 2 Oct

This is the Bake Sale girls in creative rather than curatorial mode, and we think they’re awesome in both, so get along to see them if you’re down in Melbourne for the fringe.

love Mark

Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Kind Of Ruckus (version 1.0 and Performance Space)

S: I was really excited for this show. As in, the week before it opened I had a dream that I went and saw it. Sadly I don’t remember much about the dream except that the show included the cast climbing on a wall using magnets. Basically the wall was a massive sheet of metal and the cast held magnets in their hands and feet (in dreams people can hold things with their feet) and climbed on the wall. It was an awesome effect that sadly wasn’t in the real show.

M: Disappointing

S: I do remember after the show, in my dream, someone asked me what I thought, and all I had to say was “well it was no Deeply Offensive… but it was quite good”.

M: Are you sticking by that assessment?

S: Yes I am. When I saw Deeply Offensive in 2007, I was a first year theatre student with a better knowledge of west end musicals than the Sydney theatre scene, and it completely changed my concept of how theatre could be put together and what it could do; so I guess my expectations were kind of high for this show. Anyone who has read my Deeply Offensive… review (see archive) knows how much I loved their previous work. What about you?

M: I think it’s a pretty hard line you’re taking in comparing it with Deeply Offensive. This work struck me as being totally different, both formally and in terms of its content.

S: Absolutely, and if these two shows weren’t made under the same banner, I would never have thought to compare them. But I guess I had somewhat naively, considering I’d only seen one show, come to an understanding of what to expect from Version 1.0 and this was something different from what I had wanted. That being said, it was something else that I wanted.

M: After all Deeply Offensive was so clear in what it was doing that maybe it was hard not to see it as a company defining production. Essentially, This Kind Of Ruckus is an exploration of violence in contemporary Australia, or rather, as I saw it, attitudes to violence. Entrenched in a landscape of club beats, bubble wrap and sporting exercises spanning the depth of Bay 20; the work uses recent high profile sexual assault cases emerging from the football community as a catalyst in their work. We piece together this view from the personal stories of the cast, press conferences and possibly other media sources, as in this work, unlike Deeply Offensive, their research remain unnamed.

S: Which I was surprised to think was a good decision in this case. The sometimes bodiless voices made the piece more haunting than it would have been if every story was academically referenced.

M: Yeah, it wasn’t about lampooning certain individuals; that would have been too easy, stand up comedy material, even footy show material. Like I suggested earlier, this work was about attitudes towards violence not just who did what and to whom.


S: The play essentially was split into two halves, of similar action, bookended by some cheerleader moves in front of a brightly lit curtain. The sporting theme informed the piece throughout, from the cast doing warm-ups to the half-time oranges.

M: Magic

S: Each half began with a personal story from a cast member which was then either interrupted or interrogated by the other members of the cast.

M: These moments were where I could most clearly identify these attitudes I’m talking about. When, after Danielle Antaki recounts a harrowing night with an ex boyfriend, Jane Phegan asks “What were you wearing?”

S: That was fucked.

M: For me this encapsulated something of both the Media’s attitude to victims of sexual violence and said something about club culture. A kind of disdain, an accusation that they’re asking for it, an easy shift of blame.

S: A similar moment was when Arky adorned Jane with a black eye (a simple make-up effect) then tried to justify it as an accident, “what do you want me to do? Do you want to spank me?”. His response just didn’t let up, until his questioning shoulders were almost above his head.

M: That was also, really fucked.

S: So much so the audience was split between gagging and laughing. But these small personal moments acted more as transitions for the major sections of the show which took place behind the curtain.

M: These sections were made up of repeated motifs and movements, gradually getting more and more brutal and uncontrolled. Each drawing of the curtain revealed David Williams on a chair staring directly at a prostrate, possibly unconscious Kim Vercoe. I want to say staring straight at her cunt. His face, along with other gorgeously time lapsed, delayed and live fed footage was projected onto two large white screens hanging over the front half of the stage.

S: Let’s talk vision for a moment. Sean Bacon makes video in theatre work. Projections can be really tacky and unnecessary but Version 1.0 use them perfectly. Throughout the piece a combination of live feed and recorded videos are seamlessly mixed to give us not only a different perspective on the work, but insight into the stage action that would otherwise be lost.

M: Here they contributed to the works swirling visceral nature, flesh on flesh, breathing. Bringing a liveness and weight to the action onstage. Yes I agree.

S: Visceral is exactly it, and I think this was largely to do with Gail Priest’s completely violent club inspired soundtrack.

M: Maybe not largely, I think it had more to do with the bodies of the performers. Whether it be dancing (aggressively) at each other or sprinting the length of the space or downing beer and fluoro coloured muck in plastic cups or punching each other in face as Jane and Kim did by the beer table late in the work.

S: For me though it was often the music that brought that feeling from the stage into the audience, the bass entwining itself in your stomach, as you watched the sometimes gross, but always bodily, action.

M: It’s interesting then, that we’ve already spoken about possibly the most visceral reaction in the audience, which was unaccompanied by music, just Arky’s shrugging shoulders.

S: True.

M: Point one Mark. Chalk it up.

S: Alright mate, well said. Alright, let’s get on with the show. (That’s a Ruckus joke for those playing at home). We haven’t talked about our favourite bit yet.

M: Oh yeah that was also fucked up. After David’s menacing stare at Kim, Jane facilitated a kind of reconciliation between them. Constantly interrupting a role playing conversation between the two of them. Asking, how they think it’s going. Pulling David up for doing the wrong thing.

S: But getting him to put it in positive turns, like a primary school teacher saying “let’s not have a rules list, let’s have a hopes list”.

M: Kim is frustrated to be in the same light as David and she hates it when he does that walking thing when he pretends he’s not walking. It’s very threatening.

S: He totally does that by the way, she’s not making it up.

M: You did see Deeply Offensive three times right?

S: Yeah but I’m not being a fan boy anymore because I didn’t think this show was perfect.

M: What was wrong with it Simon?

S: For a start I felt like there was a lot of wasted time. There were lengthy movements between images that I didn’t think helped build anything.

M: I appreciated the time to catch myself, and found that the break meant that diving back into the same kinds of issues/images made the work even more present. I picked up a paper the other day and reading the sports section, they actually had a cute little graphic saying “scandal free zone” next to an article on the footy.

S: I guess the other problem I had was with the content, and I that I felt it didn’t blow out the issue, so much as recap the attitudes towards it. Maybe it’s just because I’m at a university and in a course where we talk about gender politics all the time, but I just came out feeling like I hadn’t really heard or seen anything that I hadn’t thought about before. It seemed to me like the material was made for an audience that wouldn’t ever attend a Version 1.0 show. I didn’t see any football colours in the crowd.

M: Yeah maybe

S: But I guess it’s also important for this issue to not go away. I may be happy with my own attitudes and be willing to put the issues to rest in my mind, but there is still a lot of cultural change that needs to occur.

M: And that’s what I held onto as the most important statement the work was making. That a cultural attitude to sexual violence exists in Australia that means we expect to open the paper and see a scandal, and that these situations can be swept away with a few mumbled words. Embarrassing for all concerned.

S: But I wanted more engagement with why that culture exists and how we can move forward from it, or even how it is treated in the media, or how it affects the individuals who fight against it, rather than simply a portrayal of how horrible the culture itself is. I feel there was meat in the issues that they never got onto the stage.

M: You wanted documentary theatre, not a real exploration of the culture’s impact on bodies.

S: That’s because I’m Brecht and you’re Artaud.

M: (silence)

S: Simon evens it up, chalk it up.

M: …Fair call.

S: I did love a lot of the elements. I couldn’t stop talking about the video, and there were times when they made me feel absolutely horrible, some of which we’ve already discussed. David Williams and Jane Phegan have two of the most beautiful voices you’ll ever hear and I could listen to them talk in official tones for hours. But most of what I will take away from this production is theatrical, and with Version 1.0 I had hoped I would leave more affected by their politics.

M: Hmmmm. Maybe. I still think they nailed a cultural treatment of violence, and they nailed that through the theatrical elements, not despite them.

S: Indeed.

M: I guess we leave it at one all.

Simon Binns and Mark Rogers

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Once And For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen (Sydney Theatre Company/Ontroerend Goed)

Directed By Alexander Devriendt

Adolescence wasn’t really that long ago for me. I’m only two years older than the eldest members of the 13 strong cast of what I will from now on be referring to as Once and… The trials, tribulations and triumphs of this part of our lives are all recent history for me and rarely do I feel that they are well represented, on stage, screen or in other public forums. More often than not I see that representations and discussion are informed by outdated clichés, and I get the feeling that all those involved in Once and… feel much the same. This play has taken the clichés, mixed them up with real life experiences, and left you to figure out which is which. The result is a work which neither reinforces nor attacks popular notions of “teenagehood” but instead presents an honest portrait of the lives of 13 young Belgians.

The form is simple. A song plays. For the duration of that song, the 13 performers gradually emerge onto the stage, go through a series of actions associated with teenage life. These range from flicking a friend with a balloon to kissing a girl in a sleeping bag, to kicking over someone’s impressive pyramid of plastic cups. When the song ends a siren sounds and the performers clean up the stage and run off. After this form has been set-up with two pretty much identical run throughs, the action then takes place through different experiential ciphers. For example, there is one run where everyone is in love with each other, one where everyone is on drugs, one where everyone is ear-piercingly happy, one where no one actually comes on stage, and so on and so forth, until finally the magnitude of the action is increased tenfold, plastic cups have become water-cooler tanks, sleeping bags have become giant garbage bags etc. and the stage becomes a playground for some amazing(ly choreographed) chaos. The cycle is intermittently broken up by direct to audience monologues. When it’s all over and the bows have been taken care of, the cast then come out and start cleaning up.

I thought it was an interesting example of how to quickly establish a theatrical language. For the first run I wasn’t sure what to think. I was enjoying the experience, and there was a wealth of content on stage, but I wasn’t sure how to engage with it. Was this the beginning of a story about these kids? Were they in a classroom? Was the show just going to be an hour of kids being kids? How would I feel if it was? All these thoughts were running through my head while these kids laughed and played with chalk. However as soon as the process was repeated I instantly knew where I stood. Rather than attempting to take in the whole picture I started watching individuals, investigating the little moments they were having. This investigation was then taken over by the performers with each subsequent run as they revealed something new in the otherwise innocuous set of actions. Overall, I adored the form, its structured chaos the perfect metaphor for adolescence.

I also felt that the work had a really clear dramatic structure despite not having any narrative. The work was beautifully crafted by director Alexander Devriendt using what I thought was a pretty traditional three act structure of set-up, confrontation and resolution. The difference here being that the set-up is that of the form, the confrontation is that of the performers’ views on adolescence with popular opinion, and the resolution is that of the performers’ rights to their experiences.

Experiences that we both heard about and watched them have. Each cipher pinpointed the feeling of an experience of adolescence and then let this feeling drift over to the audience. The drug scene is the most extreme version of this obviously, with the loud music and visceral action demanding a reaction. But some of the simpler ideas, such as the performers simply saying their tasks rather than carrying any of them out, gave you just as strong an insight, in that case to the feeling of being robbed of your autonomy, as well as pointing out the paradox of the play itself which both freed and constrained the performers.

The monologues were perhaps the weakest part of the play. Charlotte De Bruyne’s opening was outstanding, performed with a naturalness that actors with far more training and life experience should envy. However, Jorge De Geest’s contribution was one of the few moments where the play lost momentum. Interestingly he is one of the performers that wasn’t in the original cast. The monologues were the only moments when you felt the work heading towards cliché, but luckily they were short enough that you either didn’t quite end up there, or the cliché was shown so that it could be addressed. They were also home to some genuinely heart-warming moments, which included getting the audience to scream fart.

I suppose the message of this play was that adolescence is a crazy time and to try and control it is counter-productive; that just because adults think they know what’s good for youths, that doesn’t mean they should stop them from learning for themselves. When I write it like that it seems really bland and far from groundbreaking. But after 45 minutes of this performance, this realisation was exhilarating. Watching the performers indulge in the ridiculous act of supersizing the performance in the final scene was pure vicarious satisfaction and the sense of joy that filled the room was palpable. The performance left me wanting only one thing - to see the show again many, many times. Unfortunately it closed two days later. The key to its success was simple really, the press release declared “you’ll think we’re super cool” and it was right.

- Simon

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Poppea (Sydney Opera House/Vienna Schauspielhaus)

Directed By Barrie Kosky

I have been scared about writing this review ever since I saw Poppea two weeks ago. This is because I didn’t really love it. I mean I enjoyed it, was glad I’d seen it, thought the performances were mostly of a great standard, but I left the theatre, not that bothered overall. Normally not loving a show is not that big a deal, and in fact can make writing a review easier. It can be hard to write a review of a show you loved without sounding sycophantic (a crime I am certainly guilty of, and one I expect to commit again when I review “Once and for all…” in the coming days). The difference with this production is that a) it was a Kosky, and b) EVERYONE seems to have loved it, from theatre critics, to my fellow undergrads, to my friends who I generally consider a good indicator of the fabled “general public”. It’s never easy being in the minority of opinion on a show; it makes you wonder what it was everyone else saw that you didn’t. When the show is directed by Barrie Kosky, Australia’s very own theatrical auteur, who occasionally returns from his post in Europe to offer Australia fresh insight into his genius, well let’s just say the stakes are somewhat higher. For one, no young theatre practitioner wants to be aligned with David Williamson…

Thus I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly why I didn’t engage with this work. The first problem I came across is that I simply don’t like opera that much. This perhaps a somewhat naïve statement, after all, Poppea is only the third Opera I’ve seen, although I’ve listened to quite a lot of operatic music, my father used to be an opera singer and I grew up with classical music around me. Also, the operas I have seen have been of quite a high standard. When I was travelling in 2006 I saw Carmen performed at the Vienna State Opera House. It’s a classic and was performed by some amazing singers, but I found it long and uninteresting. I got excited at the famous songs (I was the operatic equivalent of that annoying guy at concerts who only knows the singles) but the production as a whole failed to have any great effect on me. I think the problem with this opera was that it was so foreign to me. The music, the costumes, the acting style, none of it resonated. However, that was a pretty straight opera, an attempted “faithful” reproduction of a classic. Poppea was not. I figured that if anyone was going to inspire my interest in the form it would be Kosky, but unfortunately it was not the case.

My second main frustration was the text itself. I’m just not that interested in these ancient affairs. What’s more, the opera had been cut in such a way that for a long time the specifics of the story were quite hazy. But I suppose the story’s not really what’s important is it? Not in any sort of Aristotelian “we must have catharsis for it to be good theatre” sort of way anyway. It’s about what Kosky does with images and how he makes you feel right? Which is I guess why I was really disappointed. When I saw Kosky’s Tell-Tale Heart, and Women Of Troy, I felt things. I had feeling thrust upon me. Those works demanded my engagement, bodily, and I think that’s what was meant to happen with Poppea. It was certainly a very bodily work. One could say it was completely concerned with the physicality of the performers. If a character felt something, we saw it physically enacted, from Poppea playing air guitar, to Drusilla singing whilst on her tiptoes, not to mention all the sex. But none of this really did anything to me. There were definitely moments where I appreciated the craft of the actors, but I was rarely overwhelmed. I think this is partially because I was pretty much as far back as you could be. Perhaps if I had been closer to the stage the show’s physical nature would have had a stronger impact on me. Although at times I found the highly physical style of performance quite annoying. I simply thought Ruth Brauer-Kvam who played Drusilla was over-acting, and there were numerous other moments, particularly in the first half, that I felt lacked sincerity.

For all this negativity, there were things I adored. Kyree Kvam’s voice was tremendous, possibly the best singing I have ever heard, certainly in any recent history. His rendition of “So In Love” was jaw-dropping. Which brings me to my favourite aspect of the production – the Cole Porter songs. Most times they were used, I found them absolutely revealing, bringing out new meanings in the songs themselves and in the relationships of the characters. The strangling that accompanied “So In Love” was truly unsettling. As many a commentator has said, this show has changed the way many people will listen to Cole Porter. It was during these numbers that I felt most closely connected to the work, that I felt the tension coming off the stage. I’ve considered the possibility that this was simply because of the language barrier, that because in these moments I wasn’t being distracted by the surtitles I was better able to give myself over to them, but I don’t think it was that simple. I feel it was in these moments that Kosky was able to delve deeper into the action than the libretto otherwise allowed and find material that was genuinely surprising.

I found the second half superior to the first in its image work, which was certainly aided by the back walling lowering to reveal a wall of mirrors. This gave the stage new depth and a sense of openness, allowing the actors nowhere to hide. The final images of both acts were also fantastic, and the way that Kosky created them was beautiful. Before each ending he filled the stage with performers, only to remove almost all of them leaving us with a stunning stage picture as the curtain fell. At the end of the first it was Seneca’s corpse flopping awkwardly out of the bath that was his home, and for the second it was Poppea and Nero, sitting side by side as rulers of the Empire, now without need for physical affection. They were both chilling.

So what do we have in the end? A play that I quite liked elements of, but overall wasn’t that affected by - not exactly an odd night out at the theatre really. But I guess what makes it different and so frustrating is the weight of expectation I brought with me into the theatre. Barrie Kosky is an incredible director. His understanding of the power of music is second to none in the Australian theatre scene, and I found his productions of the Tell-Tale Heart and the Women Of Troy absolutely fascinating. As well as my experience of these two shows, Poppea had received absolutely glowing reviews from some of the harshest critics I know. I went into the theatre ready for something awe-inspiring, and came out largely disappointed.

- Simon