Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lies, Love and Hitler


Lies, Love and Hitler runs at the Old Fitz Theatre from April 17 – May 3 2014. By Elizabeth Scott, directed by Rochelle Whyte.

I should begin this piece with a disclaimer: I know and like many of the people involved in this show, including the writer and several members of the cast. This fact makes it harder for me to say what I have to say about this show, which is that I found it deeply problematic.

This is not a problem with the production itself. All three members of the cast execute their roles with aplomb. The play is cleverly directed – the only issue I took with that aspect was to do with an over-reliance on blackouts, which made some scene changes seem jerky where fluidity would have been preferable. And I think the writing is good too: witty, snappy, funny.

But Lies, Love and Hitler and I suffer from a fundamental ideological incompatibility, and I don’t think there’s anything that can be done to fix that. While I think other people might really enjoy this show – and, indeed, the opening night audience seemed to enjoy it a lot – it managed to hit on several areas about which I have very strong opinions. It’s a play about ambiguity, but for me, some of the questions it touched on were not ambiguous at all.

Lies, Love and Hitler follows theology professor Paul Langley (James Scott). Langley teaches ethics, and while teaching the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a German pastor who conspired to kill Hitler – he finds himself visited by Bonhoeffer’s ghost (Doug Chapman). As he negotiates a nascent romantic relationship with his student Hannah (Ylaria Rogers), he finds himself tormented by a series of ethical questions, which he seeks Bonhoeffer’s advice in solving.

The first of these questions is posed right at the beginning of the play as we watch Langley teach his ethics class. Would it be, he asks, morally right to kill Hitler? Bonhoeffer, a devout Christian, was regarded as a hero for attempting to do this – but was it ethical? Does the end justify the means?

Personally, I don’t think this is a particularly interesting question. Most people would say yes, on the basis of simple mathematical calculation – one life versus many lives. We can see a similar question in Game of Thrones: Jaime Lannister broke his oath and killed King Aerys Targaryen, but Aerys was mad and wanted to burn the entire country, so... what was he supposed to do? (It would have been intriguing, actually, if the play had explored someone who faced this question and said no – a far more interesting position to defend.) But it is not in and of itself problematic. No, what I found problematic was the line drawn between Bonhoeffer’s dilemma – is it moral to kill Hitler? – and Langley’s: is it okay for a teacher and a student to have a romantic relationship?

As an academic myself, I have some fairly strong views on this question, which basically boil down to one word: no. “Is there anything objectively wrong with a teacher and a student falling in love?” Bonhoeffer asks Langley at one point. Langley’s answer is “no,” to which I raised an eyebrow, because my answer is definitely – and unambiguously – “yes”. There is a reason that teacher/student relationships are proscribed, and that reason is to do with abuse of power. Conflicts of interest can arise over mere friendly acquaintanceships, let alone romances. This is not a grey area. Hannah and Langley have known each other for many years, which ostensibly complicates the matter, but a) the fact that she is in his class and he is marking her assignments is already a conflict of interest, and b) he has known her since she was a little girl, by which time he was already a young man, which kind of makes it even grosser.

And all this is leaving aside the big problem: the equation of whether or not to kill Hitler and whether or not to engage in a teacher/student relationship, as if these were in any way equivalent.

This is not the only problematic parallel drawn in the play. Hannah, we discover, has filed sexual harassment charges against another professor. Langley is visited by a university sexual harassment officer who essentially asks him for a character reference for Hannah. Coached by Bonhoeffer, he lies to her. This officer is clearly looking out for the interests of the university and not the student, which leads Langley at one point to equate the investigation with the Gestapo. Now, there are certainly horrible instances of things like this happening in universities, especially in the USA, but it’s not common, or anywhere near this clear-cut. Sexual harassment officers like these exist explicitly to look after students’ interests, and I imagine they would be having an ethical dilemma all of their own if they were asked to protect the institution at the cost of the victim. (Again, maybe that would have been a more interesting moral question to explore.) This was a very narratively convenient way to draw a very, very problematic parallel. To compare an investigation of sexual harassment claims to the Gestapo, to make analogous the questions Langley faces with the interrogation Bonhoeffer did? Oh no. Oh hell no.

I had no idea why Bonhoeffer’s shade was hanging around Langley, to be honest. Langley seems kind of terrible. What he’s doing isn’t that morally grey. It’s pretty clearly wrong. Yes, even if the woman involved is actively consenting.

Said woman Hannah identifies as a feminist, but this didn’t ring true for me. This was not necessarily because of her relationship with Langley. Rather, it was because her feminism didn’t feel real at all. There was an “ugh, men” moment at one point, another to do with men opening doors, and another, where she said to herself, “I’m supposed to be a feminist! An intellectual! And yet I can’t tear myself away from these love letters!”

I am… not sure what the conflict here is supposed to be, exactly? I am a feminist historian of love and romance, so I have more than a few thoughts on this matter, but modern feminism (that is, third-wave feminism) is certainly not anti-love. Hannah felt like a caricature of a feminist, and as someone invested in seeing more explicit representations of feminism on stage, I found this very disappointing.

(Also, there was a crack about Mills & Boon readers I didn’t really appreciate, but then, I am very sensitive to that kind of thing and cannot expect to Hannah and Langley to share my opinions on this issue.)

Lies, Love and Hitler is never dull. It certainly keeps you engaged the whole way through. A lot of the dialogue is very good – there’s a real quality of banter and some great comic moments. But the ethical underpinnings of this play left me a bit horrified, to be honest. The moral dilemmas? Not that dilemma-y from where I was sitting. Morality exists in shades of grey, and sometimes all the choices are bad – but I’m pretty comfortable saying that things are pretty clear cut when it comes to things like teacher/student relationships and comparing sexual harassment investigations to the Gestapo. While others might enjoy this show a lot, I found it very difficult to see past the political problems I had with it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cough


Cough (Unhappen) runs at 107 Projects in Redfern from April 10 – 20, 2014. By Emily Calder, directed by James Dalton.

Cough is an unusual little piece of theatre. It covers a subject that I haven’t seen represented before on stage: the imaginative capacity of children, and the angst their parents feel when they do not and cannot follow. It took me a little while to warm up to, but overall, I thought this was really intriguing theatre.

There are two sets of characters in Cough. First, there are the children: Isla (Vanessa Cole), Jess (Melissa Brownlow) and Finlay (Tim Reuben), who all go to the same daycare. There they meet Frank (Tom Christophersen), older and wiser than them at the grand age of three and a half, who tells them about a terrifying monster called Brian who lurks nearby. And then there are the children’s parents: Isla’s mother Isabelle (Cole), Jess’ mother Julie (Brownlow) and Finlay’s father Clive (Reuben), angsting over the minutiae of their children’s lives and the parent/teacher politics at the daycare. And meanwhile, a mysterious tree has appeared in the daycare’s backyard and continues to grow and grow and grow...

It took me some time to work out just what was going on in this play, and just how realistically I should treat it. In the end, if I had to fit it into a genre, I would probably call it magic realism. The world of the children is both imaginary and not, loomed over by the figure of Brian and the tree (a kind of evil Faraway Tree, as far as I could tell). The parents are worried about very normal, grounded things – germs from the sandpit, how much their kids are eating – but at the same time, cannot dismiss or deny the effects (sometimes physical) that Frank’s fantastical stories have had on their children. What I initially thought was not working within the play actually turned out to be one of its greatest strengths: a kind of deliberate ambiguity between the real and the imaginary. The ending is proof positive of this – I won’t spoil it, but it’s wonderfully staged and viscerally affecting.

There is something very sinister at play in Cough, an ongoing suggestion that maybe the monsters of our childhood do not disappear, we just forget how to see them. The ambiguity I highlighted above plays into this beautifully. However, sometimes I think the play runs the risk of being too ambiguous – for example, there’s a major reveal at the end about Frank, but the implications of this are never really explored. Similarly, a few other narrative threads and motifs are raised and then forgotten (the cough, for one – what happened to that?). I would have liked a few of the loose threads to be tied up better. I also would have liked to see the play edited a little tighter, as there were some points where I felt my attention drifting. At an hour and twenty minutes it’s not long, but I think if it was brought down to an hour or so it would be a much stronger piece of theatre.

One of the things I liked best about this play was the way it was staged. I was initially unsure about the use of dolls (they were used to represent the children at the beginning of the play), but they grew on me. This is a very small space and it was used to wonderful effect, particularly vertically – the ladder scene at the end was superb. One thing I would note, though, is that the smoke machine is used and abused, to the extent where I think it set the fire alarm off at the end of the performance I saw. I’m not a smoke machine fan at the best of times, and this really was a bit much. (The title “cough” was quite apt for many people in the audience!)

Overall, although there were some areas for improvement, I really liked Cough. It’s one of the more unusual pieces of theatre I’ve seen in 2014, and I applaud its ambition and creativity. I’ll be very interested to see what Unhappen do next.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wonderland

My review of Wonderland (Lexx Productions) at the Seymour Centre is now up at Australian Stage. Check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: I wasn't a fan.)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Music

My review of Music (Stories Like These and Griffin Independent) is now up. Check out what I thought here. (Sadly, it wasn't my favourite.)

Perplex

My review of Perplex at Sydney Theatre Company is now up at Australian Stage. Check out what I thought here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Moment On The Lips


A Moment On The Lips (Mad March Hare Theatre Company in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 25 March – 12 April 2014. By Jonathan Gavin, directed by Mackenzie Steele.

I loved this play from the moment I read the press release. A show that focuses on the bonds between women – sisters, friends, lovers – with an all-female cast? Oh yes. Oh HELLS YES. That is something I am immediately interested in. These are the types of relationships that are desperately under-explored. And call me selfish, but as a twenty-something woman, I am totes going to be into a show about other young women. Strange, I know.

So perhaps I went in with crazy high expectations, but A Moment On The Lips really bummed me out, because I did not get what I wanted from it at all.

There was a line at the end where one of the characters demands of the others, “so what are we going to do now? Sit around and think up clever new ways to be awful to each other?”. I thought that that pretty much captured the whole play. This was a show that basically revolved around women – sisters, friends, lovers – being awful to each other.

Two points. 1) I do not believe that characters have to be likeable for a show to be good. (Which is lucky, because none of the characters in this show are.) 2) I firmly believe that women can be and often are awful to each other. I’ve been awful to other women. Other women have been awful to me. It’s a thing that happens.

But OMG, the women in this show were SO UNRELENTINGLY awful to each other. And that was the problem. You couldn’t understand why they hung around each other: why the friends stayed friends, why the lovers stayed lovers, why the sisters kept talking to each other. You never, ever understood why they couldn’t stay away from each other. And I mean, sure, there are terribly unhealthy relationships where you’re bad for each other and mean to each other and still can’t stay away. But not every friend is a frenemy. I feel like A Moment On The Lips was shooting for “complex, messy female relationships” but ended up at “women being bitches to each other”.

This play didn’t ring true for me at all. Not that every play about young women should, like, replicate my life, but there was very little in here that resonated with me. Take, for example, the character of Rowena (Lucy Goleby), who is a PhD student writing a dissertation. That is not so far from my life. That’s something I recognise at once. But when she starts talking about her thesis, she’s immediately told to stop by the people that are supposed to be the closest to her. That is exactly the opposite of my experience. If people care about you, they’ll listen. Even if they’ve heard you talk about it a million times. Even if they think it’s boring.

That’s quite a specific example of a broader problem with the play. The dynamics of the female relationships just weren’t… right. This is one thing that I think Lena Dunham’s Girls does very well: while some of the characters can be totally unlikeable and are often terrible to each other, you still understand why they hang out with each other. Hannah and Jessa, for instance, have both been narcissistic and self-centred and showed little care for the feelings of others, but you still understand a) why their friends are still friends with them, and b) why they are still friends with each other. For all its other faults, this is also something I think Sex and the City did reasonably well at. Teen girl drama Pretty Little Liars has four girl leads, and while it has a spectacularised hyperbolic storyline, it is great at female friendship and its complexities. I didn’t find that in A Moment On The Lips at all, and it made me so, so sad.

The character I was the most engaged with was Emma (Claudia Barrie), probably because her relationships were the most complex and nuanced. She was the only one I really believed felt genuine affection for her friends: one of the play’s most accurate moments came, I thought, when she lied to her artist friend Victoria (Beth Aubrey) about liking her exhibition when she’d actually hated it. Her storyline, however, which involved her being stalked and almost murdered by someone who had seen her on TV, did not ring true. Other storylines did – the selfish Victoria reliant on her career being funded by her older sister Jenny (Sarah Aubrey), and being resentful when that money was taken away – but the relationships felt so one-dimensional that the story too became unbelievable.

I think the problem was that we don’t see any of the characters being really genuinely nice to each other until right at the end of the play. And that is just not how female friendship works. Sure, sometimes friendship is performed, but most of the time? Women like hanging out with other women. Genuinely. Really. For me, my female friendships are the most cherished relationships in my life. And if you’re going to do a show that centres around the bonds between women – whether they’re sisters, friends, or lovers – the pleasures of those bonds are something that need to be recognised.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

High Windows, Low Doorways


High Windows, Low Doorways (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from March 19 – 30. Written by Jonathan Ari Lander, Noelle Janaczewska, Katie Pollock, Alison Rooke, Mark Langham, Ellana Costa and Melita Rowston. Directed by Paul Gilchrist.

High Windows, Low Doorways is a series of monologues loosely focused around the theme of spirituality. Like many of subtlenuance’s productions, it’s layered and complex. There is a lot in this show to mull over. I thought it was beautifully curated and well performed.

 One of the things I liked the way in which the monologues often seemed to be in conversation with each other – not necessarily literally, but thematically. As a result, I thought the best way to write this review was in conversation with my theatre date, my friend Martin.

JODI: Hi Martin.

MARTIN: Hi Jodi.

JODI: So we’ve just been to see High Windows, Low Doorways. Tell me your initial impressions.

MARTIN: Um –

JODI: I won’t put the um in.

MARTIN: No, don’t put the um in.

JODI: Actually, I think ‘um’ might be a good place to begin. When approaching a subject as broad and intimidating as spirituality, our first instinct is often to say ‘um’.

MARTIN: Indeed. I was surprised by the lack of… religious content… or, content I would associate with ‘spirituality’ in my own concept of the term.

JODI: Can you explain that for me a little further?

MARTIN: Um…

JODI: Sorry, I realise this is a totally intimidating exercise. But then, religion is intimidating.

MARTIN: I didn’t identify the characters on stage as spiritual as such or the stories that they were telling as inherently spiritual. And I guess I was expecting people who were more religious in a day to day sense of the word. I think what we got was people explaining aspects of their lives that they loosely associate as spiritual. And… I had a very sort of spiritual childhood and half of my teenage years were the same and… um… yeah. I thought we would experience people who had more of a day to day connection with the spiritual. But it was something else.

JODI: Not being especially spiritual myself, I found the pieces I connected with most were the ones associated with spirituality and childhood – I went to a Catholic primary school and so a lot of that resonated with me very strongly. However, I’m not sure whether spirituality per se was actually what the focus was. I feel like more of it – and maybe this ties into you not feeling the experiences related as particularly spiritual – was more to do with ritual than with actual belief. Would you agree?

MARTIN: Absolutely.

JODI: There’s a concept in Islam that I’ve always quite liked when applied to religion more broadly. They distinguish between islam – the vertical relationship between person and god – and iman – the horizontal relationships between members of a religious community. I feel like what was explored here was much more iman, and I feel like ‘spirituality’ would be much more islam – a personal, rather than communal experience.

MARTIN: Yes. And it is interesting to note that I think every story that was told in this piece of theatre involved someone’s relationship with a family member or friends – in one case, a teacher at school. They all connected with this theme of spirituality through people within their own social or community networks.

JODI: Totally true. One was about a guy and his grandma, another about a Lao girl and her culture, another about an oppressively discriminatory school experience… but not very much about gods or actual personal belief. And I wonder whether that was the thing missing. The only real gesture towards gods we got were hymns, and a lot of the time, they rang quite hollow for me. What did you think?

MARTIN: Yes, I thought of the hymns as theatrical embellishment – a nice way to break up the style of presentation. But not a moment of… spiritual connection or… prayer, I guess? In the way that I’ve experienced it from childhood.

JODI: That was what was missing, wasn’t it? That notion of prayer?

MARTIN: Yes. I would agree with that.

JODI: Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I find it quite interesting that most of the associations with this theme were ritualistic – that is, social – rather than individual or personal. I wanted that notion to be explored more, unpacked and unpicked, I guess. But in this medium, where you have seven different writers creating seven different pieces, I wonder how much room there was to do that.

MARTIN: I see that point of view. And I also – from my own personal experiences, feel like that [individually spiritual] aspect of religion is becoming more and more rare in our society. Personally, I feel that this reflects my own journey that I’ve taken in life away from that personal relationship with gods towards a more communal one.

JODI: I wonder what this says about communities. Do we in fact worship our communities in a religious sense? I don’t really know.

MARTIN: I think that my own personal relationships have replaced for me that thing that the religious aspect of my childhood fulfilled, so I would support that.

JODI: So would the show, I think. There was a lot of loneliness there. Would you agree?

MARTIN: Yes. There was a lot of the single person reflecting on memories of relationships but doing so in such a way that they felt like they were alone even though they were communicating to the audience.

JODI: Personally, I found the piece set in a Christian high school quite affecting, probably because I could relate to it – that basically was my school experience. Were there any that stood out to you in particular?

MARTIN: I did relate to that one as well, having gone to a religious school. I really connected with the story about a person who was having a bad year and kept finding feathers in various places and that moment where she just spills everything in a prayer in a Buddhist temple… I related to that moment where you just break down and spill everything as a last resort as an effective way of dealing with that kind of situation.

JODI: That one took me back to a moment when I was in Malaysia a few years ago and I did something similar – though nowhere near as dramatic. I remember being in a Buddhist temple and hanging a kind of wish ribbon on a tree and just really sincerely imbuing it with wishes about all these worries I had and… it seems quite minor in the scheme of my life, you know, but it was one of those moments that sticks in your mind.

MARTIN: I had a very similar experience in a church in Poland. I do remember it quite vividly… I do think it was a turning point for me. It might have been the last time I really prayed.

JODI: Which is why I found it so interesting that this show focused so much on ritual – rituals stay with us, even if belief does not. I think that was really the common theme echoed throughout, and it resonated with me.

MARTIN: Me too.

JODI: Any closing remarks you want to make about the show?

MARTIN: It’s interesting having a conversation about it because I feel like the impact for me has been felt more on reflection than during the performance. Maybe that’s a credit to the show.

JODI: I think it’s a thought provoking show – maybe not one that you’re glued to the whole time, but definitely one that you have to mull over afterwards. Thank you for chatting with me post-show, Martini.

MARTIN: Pleasure, McAlister.