Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Effect

I'm back in Sydney after some time spent researching overseas. The first play I saw on my return was The Effect at Sydney Theatre Company. You can read my thoughts here at Australian Stage.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Scenes From An Execution

Scenes From An Execution (Tooth and Sinew) runs at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 13 – 31 2014. By Howard Barker, directed by Richard Hilliar.

Scenes From An Execution is an incredibly rich, textured piece of theatre. There is so much here to chew on, intellectually and emotionally. At its heart is an enthralling female character, prickly, complex and utterly engaging. The show raises fascinating questions about art and authority which I’ll continue to mull over for some time.

The play is set in Venice in 1571. Controversial artist Galactia (Lucy Miller) is commissioned by the Doge (Mark Lee) to paint a picture commemorating the Battle of Lepanto, one of Venice’s most comprehensive victories over the Ottoman Empire. He expects her to conform to certain artistic boundaries – to celebrate the victory and the glory of Venice. But Galactia has a different story in mind. After an encounter with Prodo (Peter Maple), a war veteran made ridiculous by the arrow shaft stuck in his head, she decides to paint a portrait of the battle as it really was: a bloody, merciless slaughter.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away and spoil it – particularly as this is a show well worth seeing for yourselves – but the ongoing story of the painting and its contentious ownership raises questions about art and intention that I’m very interested in. This play might be about sixteenth century Venice, but these are questions with ongoing resonance. I’m not sure whether there was a similar moment in art history, but I am familiar with some of the literary theory around these questions. Schleiermachian hermeneutics, one of the early forms of literary criticism, placed the author at the centre of the work. In this model, the reader became a sort of detective, puzzling over the text in an effort to reach the author’s true intentions. But in the twentieth century, the New Criticism emerged, which centred the text, rather than the author. In 1968, Roland Barthes famously declared that the author was dead. Michel Foucault made a similar claim when he called the author a function.

While this is congruent with literary development at the time, it is also not coincidental that this is a period when marginalised writers’ voices started to be heard: voices from writers disenfranchised by their race, class, orientation and/or gender. The dead author trope became another way of marginalising them.  We see something similar in Scenes From An Execution, particularly in the second act. Galactia is so certain her work belongs to her, but a new mode of criticism is emerging, represented here by the critic Rivera (Katherine Shearer).

Let’s talk a bit about Galactia, this fascinating female artist, and her relationship with her work. Her character arc in this play is remarkable, centring as it does around art and her pursuit of truth rather than her relationships, as so many female arcs do. (I have absolutely zero problems with female arcs centring on relationships, but this should not be the only option open to women.) Indeed, the most important relationship she has in this play is not with her lover Carpeta (Jeremy Waters), but with her art – and, by extension, with truth. Galactia believes she is doing a brave and noble thing with her art: an important thing, an incontrovertible thing, an intrinsically political thing. But she does not take into account the fact that ownership of her work might be challenged. I found the way this idea of truth and art is treated and mobilised in Scenes From An Execution so, so interesting. I want to say a lot more about it, but a) a lot of it involves Foucault and that’s a bit boring, and b) I don’t want to spoil the show.

This is a really good production of a very difficult script. It is very intense the whole way through and perhaps could have benefited from a little more light and shade, but when I think about where that stillness could go, I’m at a loss. Like Galactia, this play is relentless – and that is part of its appeal. Director Richard Hilliar has put together a great ensemble – Lucy Miller as Galactia and Jeremy Waters as Carpeta are particular standouts. There is so much going on in this piece, and it would have been easy for it to get bogged down in its own verbiage. But happily, this does not happen. I found Scenes From An Execution utterly fascinating. Make time to go and see it.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

I reviewed Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography at Griffin Theatre. Check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: I thought it was boss.)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Thom Pain (based on nothing) plays at the Old Fitzroy Hotel from May 5 – 10. By Will Eno, directed by Julie Baz

NB: I saw a preview of this show.

It’s hard to know what to say about Thom Pain (based on nothing) that isn’t just, “…um, what?” It’s one of those things which seems to be an exercise in pointlessness – the “based on nothing” in the title is not false advertising. It’s a long, rambling monologue (complete with interval) about nothing.

This play was a critical darling when it was first performed in 2004, but to be honest, it’s not a type of theatre I have a great deal of patience with. Its self-conscious performativity – the title character (played here by David Jeffrey) is very, very aware that he’s telling a long, confusing, pointless story to an audience – is frustrating. While there are some great lines in it (I especially enjoyed, “I disappeared into her, and she, not knowing where I went, left”), it’s very self-indulgent… and dull, to be honest. A big chunk of the audience in the preview I saw left at interval, and it was hard to fault them.

Afterwards, I spent a lot of time thinking about why: what was the point? why should we be interested in listening to Thom Pain ramble about his life? why should this man’s confused ramblings be considered worthy of our time? (“There’s going to be a moment when you only have thirty seconds to live,” Thom says at one point. “You’ll think of me then.” And I probably will, still trying to work out what exactly I was doing with the hour and a half of my life I spent watching this play.) I found it interesting that Eno has imbued Thom Pain with a name – and a resonant name at that. It’s hard to miss the allusion to Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. So why this name? why this allusion? Because Paine was a revolutionary and this Pain is… painful.

I don’t really have an answer to this question, but it did make me start thinking about another revolutionary pamphleteer from the same period: Mary Wollstonecraft. (The fact that I was thinking about this during the show is probably testament to the fact that I wasn’t really engaged by what was going on onstage.) And that made me wonder what would happen if the central character was a woman. Would this play be nominated for a Pulitzer if it was about a woman narrating confusing, rambling episodes from her life? Would listening to her talk be considered literature, a worthy demand on our time?

Obviously I can’t prove this, but I don’t think it would be. I read an interesting piece the other day by Katie Heaney where she talks about the three types of hate mail she and other female writers receive. One is a type she has called, “Announcement of My Male Existence.” And that’s what this felt like – an announcement of Thom Pain’s male existence, to an audience that is expected to listen to him, to want to listen to him, even though he really has nothing to say. Which made me wonder if this was a deliberate exercise in dullness, but either way, it’s dull, you know?

Others may feel differently, but I find this kind of self-conscious theatre very frustrating. I’m just not that interested in hearing a man self-indulgently talk about nothing and expect me to listen. David Jeffrey does his best as the titular character, but for me, there was no saving this play. If someone’s going to talk about themselves for an hour and a half, I’d like it if they were saying something worth listening to (or even something interesting).

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Antigone: The Burial at Thebes

Antigone: The Burial at Thebes (Furies) runs from April 30 – May 4 at the Tap Gallery. By Sophocles, translated by Seamus Heaney, directed by Chris McKay.

One of the first questions I ask when it comes to restaging classic works like Antigone is the question of relevance. Why this play? Why now? What is the significance? Of course, “interesting intellectual exercise” is a perfectly valid reason, but for a play to truly strike the mark, there needs to be some sort of resonance.

In this sense, if one has only the canon of Greek tragedy to choose from, Antigone was a smart choice to put on. The figure at its heart, Antigone (played in the performance I saw by Krystiann Dingas, who is alternating the role with Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou), is a fascinating, complicated heroine. Forbidden by the patriarchy of Thebes, the city of which she was once princess, to bury her brother Polyneices, she is defiant, unapologetically seizing agency. It is a fascinating portrait of a woman in rebellion against an unfriendly society: something which I think many women relate to quite viscerally.

Antigone is portrayed as heroic – that word is explicitly used in this translation by great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. She places honour above everything else, even her own life. Honour is a character trait most often coded masculine (and, indeed, Antigone’s sister Ismene cannot live up to this standard), as is filial devotion. But Antigone is most definitely a female character: subverting patriarchy by asserting agency. This dynamic is one I find so, so interesting, especially considering how many thousands of years old this play is.

It’s a shame, then, that although Antigone is the title character, the play is mostly about Creon, the patriarch whom she defies. This can’t really be helped, given the ancientness of the play, but Creon is significantly less interesting than his niece. The second half of the play is mostly about his man-pain, and it’s nowhere near as powerful as the first – although it is very interesting to see how the patriarchy deals with being destabilised by a defiant woman, something Heaney highlights brilliantly in his translation.

I’ve talked so far about the play: let’s focus now on the production. It is a good one, but not a great one. I wasn’t ever bored, and the cultural idiosyncrasies of Greek theatre were translated well to the modern stage. (I wasn’t entirely sure what the relationship of the chorus character, played by Peter Jamieson, to Creon was supposed to be, but it wasn’t that big a concern.) All in all, it was a very tidy one and a half hours of theatre. However, it was a bit awkward and one note in places, and I felt it could have been imbued with significantly more nuance. Several characters fell victim to declaiming, pronouncing their long monologues with great gusto but only one emotional level. This was particularly true of Brendan Layton’s Creon, who was hard to get a handle on. His emotional arc was clear from his words but not necessarily from his acting: he went from autocratic! to angry! to sad! without very much in the way of transition.

Because the play had this very flat emotional trajectory, it made it very hard to connect with. I was talking about it afterwards with my theatre date, and he said that, “I believed that they [the actors] felt it, but I didn’t feel it.” I agree completely. More care needed to be taken with the show’s emotional tapestry for it to be truly affective for the audience.

(Also, the bit with Tiresias really doesn’t work at all. It verges on the parodic: Tiresias is played by Peter Bertoni as a kind of caricature of a prophet. And whoever decided to put him in a luminescent orange toga really isn’t doing him any favours, especially since everyone else in the play is dressed in modern clothes.)

Overall, though, I think this was a solid production of a difficult play. I very much enjoyed Krystiann Dingas’ performance as Antigone, and I’d be very interested to see how Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou, who was fabulous as Ismene, does in the same role. The most interesting part of the show is its female characters: they are what makes this ancient play resonant and relevant.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Construction of the Human Heart

Construction of the Human Heart runs from April 16 – May 3 2014 at the Tap Gallery. By Ross Mueller, directed by Dino Dimitriades.

Construction of the Human Heart is one of the cleverest pieces of writing I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing onstage. It’s dense and difficult, but it’s also complex, nuanced, multi-layered. As the layers are peeled back and back and back, more and more is revealed.

This is normally where I’d offer a brief prĂ©cis of the play. The “plot” of this show, if it can be said to have one (it is picaresque, more interested in scenes than in a linear narrative) is relatively simple. Two writers, a man and a woman, are in love, have a child, and lose that child. But to reduce the show to this brief description is doing it a major disservice. There is so much in this play that seems to be about so little.

Writers writing about writers writing has the potential to be – and often is – the height of self-indulgence. What sets Construction of the Human Heart apart is the fact that, although it features writers, it is not really about them. Instead, it’s about stories, about scripting: about the way we script the narratives of our own lives, how we use stories to save us, and how we construct our own emotional worlds, our human hearts.

It’s the kind of play I’d like to read so I could unpick and unpack more of the ideas embedded within it, but the performative aspect to it is key. I’m not normally a huge fan of the Brechtian alienation effect (distancing the audience emotionally from the work so as to force them to think about it analytically) but it was perfectly employed here. Director Dino Dimitriades has mounted a very intelligent production of what must have been a horrendously difficult script to approach.

Although Construction of the Human Heart touches on very emotional issues – love, life, loss – it is not really emotionally engaging. I do not think it was at all intended to be: the alienation effect sees to that. But intellectually…? SO ENGAGING. I was transfixed. I was glad it wasn’t longer (it’s only an hour), because I think it would have become exhausting. The delicate threads of story and scene and art and performativity are woven together here to form a fascinating cerebral tapestry. It made me think, and I think I’m going to keep thinking about it a lot.

If it’s not already obvious, I thought Construction of the Human Heart was a fantastic piece of theatre. It was theatre that had to be theatre. No other medium would have sufficed. It’s a difficult piece – do not go along if you simply want to be entertained – but I thought it was so, so fascinating. And the production does the script justice. If this is indicative of the level of work they’re producing, I’ll be extremely excited to see what Apocalypse Theatre Company do next.

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.