Friday, November 14, 2014

Trojans

Trojans runs at PACT in Erskineville from November 14-22 2014 as part of the Tiny Stadiums Festival.

Trojans by Project Mess at PACT Sydney is not the greatest piece of theatre you’re ever going to see. It’s probably not in the top twenty either. But it is a lot of fun: and fun, as far as I’m concerned, is a good enough reason to see anything.

The conceit behind Trojans is one drawn from Mexican telenovela (essentially soap operas, generally of the most hyperbolic kind). The story moves so fast and the actors are required to film so many pages of script in a day that it isn’t possible for the actors to learn their lines, so dialogue is fed to them via radio as they tape. One take, one chance: that’s it. In Trojans, the lines are delivered to actors via radio and they deliver them as we watch, the action happening in real time against a green screen.

I love this idea. Like, I LOVE IT. The idea of genre fiction and maligned popular artforms – which most definitely includes telenovela and soap opera – on the stage is one that appeals to me greatly, so when I heard about Trojans, I pretty much hallooed HELL YES to the reverberate hills. Trojans, sadly, does not make the most of this conceit – at least not in the episode I saw, which was the episode performed on November 14, written by Annalise Constable. Instead, it delivers a fairly staid episode of a knockoff Cheers: a kind of sitcom set in a bar where two mental patients converse about pretty much nothing.

It’s not without its charms. Barman Brett (Brett Johnson) is a pretty entertaining fixture, and there are a couple of amusing exchanges. But telenovela is so big, so dramatic, so ridiculous and spectacular, that I wanted something more – something soapier. The program notes state that Project Mess visualise Trojans “as more of a sitcom than a soapie”, so I guess the Cheers-esque vibe suits that, but… why give up a golden opportunity to do telenovela on stage and make it awesome, especially when you’re adopting the conceits of its delivery? The recent success of Jane The Virgin shows that telenovela can be brought and brought well to a mainstream audience, even if the soap opera is the most maligned of televisual forms. I wish Project Mess hadn’t backed away from the spectacularised form of the telenovela and opted for the more acceptable sitcom. I feel the former would have made better theatre.

That said, even though the script on the night I saw Trojans was pretty ordinary, the evening is a great deal of fun. Interspersed with ad breaks and audience engagement, it’s definitely an enjoyable night out at the theatre. Every night features a new writer, and I’m coming back next week to see what another episode of the show has to offer. It’s a short night – the show clocks in at only an hour – and while it might not necessarily be great theatre, it is very entertaining.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Emerald City

I reviewed Griffin Theatre Company's production of Emerald City over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here.

(Reminder that I'm in the final throes of my PhD and thus mostly confined to a study cave right now, so not reviewing as much as normal. Regular programming will recommence in 2015!)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kryptonite

My review of Kryptonite at Sydney Theatre Company is now up at Australian Stage. Check it out here.

NB: I'm only reviewing a small amount of shows for the next few months - my doctoral thesis is due at the end of November and as such, is keeping me pretty busy! Regularly scheduled programming will resume by the New Year.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Joan, Again


Joan, Again (subtlenuance, SITCo) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 5-23 August 2014. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.

In 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Ten years later, in a quiet little village known mostly for making cushions (“where France learns to sleep!”), she has returned. Or has she?

Joan, Again explores the power of narrative as a way of understanding the world. Every character in the play knows the story of Joan, and on each of them, it has had a different effect. For gregarious Bernadette (Bonnie Kellett), Joan represents the promise of power, righteousness, and agency: the story of a girl who has done something is deeply inspiring for a girl who has been able to do so little. For her mother Isabelle (Helen Tonkin), Joan represents war, a monstrous horror which stole her son from her. The story of Joan reminds Gerard (James Collette) of all the things he did and did not do when he was at the Siege of Orleans. It is a great example of how a story is somehow more than itself: that it is polysemic, containing many layers, and that it can be interpreted and read many ways. When Joan or someone claiming to be her (Sylvia Keays) appears in the village, all these disparate readings of her story are thrown into sharp relief.

I think there were some really clever ideas underpinning Joan, Again. I’m very interested in the polysemic nature of narrative in my academic work, and it was exciting to see it explored in such an interesting way here. I was particularly intrigued by the way that the work put the emphasis on women’s stories, particularly in the first act. Throughout the play, the female characters are continually being told to be quiet by the male ones – that speaking is not feminine. The play opens begin with a collection of four female characters talking (and talking about how they talk too much). Throwing Joan – that woman who dared not only to speak, but to speak to kings and armies and to God himself – into that mix was very potent indeed.

Sadly, I think this element of the story fell away a bit in the second act, as stories about God and the politics of the church became more important. Overall, while I was very interested in the way Joan, Again dealt with questions of narrative, I think there was just too much stuff in the play for it to be really effective. It was kind of ironic that in a play so focused on the power of narrative that the narrative was obscured. This was mostly because there were simply too many words. I know I say this about a lot of shows (and it is obviously indicative of my own theatrical preferences), but at two and a half hours, this show was too long.  If it had been cut down to about ninety minutes, I think it could have been scintillating. Pared back, with some of the unnecessary dialogue stripped away, and maybe less indulgence in one-liners (the play is very, very funny is some places, but I think sometimes this came at the expense of the pacing), Joan, Again could have been an absolute bombshell.

As it is, it’s still quite an absorbing play. There are some great performances, particularly from Helen Tonkin as Isabelle and Sylvia Keays, who is luminescent as Joan. It’s a very thoughtful piece of theatre. However, it could definitely have been improved if the really interesting thoughts that underpin it had been allowed to shine through the web of verbiage a little more.

Mr Kolpert

I reviewed Mr Kolpert (pantsguys) at ATYP over at Australian Stage. Check out what I thought here. (Spoilers: it was awesome.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Jack Kerouac's Essentials of Spontaneous Prose


Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose plays at the Bondi Pavilion as part of the Bondi Feast Festival from July 22-26 2014. By Jessica Bellamy and David Finnigan, directed by Gin Savage.

Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is a gentle, contemplative, rich piece of theatre. Actually, I’m not entirely sure it’s technically “theatre” per se (but then we would get into a whole debate about what constitutes theatre and there would be definitions and stuff and no one wants that). It’s certainly not theatre in the traditional sense. It’s more akin to a radio play, but it’s not quite that either. I wondered for a while if it would have been best as prose – I think I certainly would have liked to read it, because there’s a lot in it and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff – but on second thought, I think theatrical conceit added a lot to it. We as audience sit around a pool of water, watching and listening as conversations and snippets of stories ripple across its surface.

One of the stories Scheherazade tells in the Arabian Nights (I think that’s where I remember it from!) is about a man who, entranced by a pool of water, sticks his head into it. While his head is in the water, he lives lifetimes: he conquers cities, defeats dragons, rescues princesses, all that kind of thing. When he removes his head from the water, only a few seconds have passed. (This story was part of Kenneth Slessor’s inspiration for Five Bells, BTW.) It’s easy to imagine that the pool of water in this show is the same kind of pool – full of infinite stories.

In this case, the stories were framed by, or came from, or maybe even emerged in spite of, Jack Kerouac’s guideline for writers, which are being discussed and talked through by two writers sitting in a cafĂ©. Normally, I would find a show about two writers sitting and talking about writing unbearably self-indulgent – and there is certainly an element of indulgence here – but one of the things I really liked about this show was the way that stories kind of kept crowding their way over the top of the rules for prose. The two writers describe the best way to get close to the story, a kind of monstrous creature which you must submit to. There was one line which described language not as a dress you can pull off but as a tattoo, something imprinted on you, something bound to you. And yet in the midst of this, story is happening anyway without much interference from them – they are distracted by people sitting a few tables away, wondering if they’re getting married or divorced.

There’s a Daoist meditative ritual called zuowang – literally, sitting and forgetting – where you sit and stare into water and forget all your training and education in an effort to learn simply to be, to return to a state of pu (lit. “uncarved block”), which is the natural state of humans. I was reminded irresistibly of this during Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, staring into the limpid pool that was our theatre. Many of Kerouac’s rules were kind of about this: removing barriers and preconceptions and pretensions to literary technique so that you were able to face the story in a kind of pure state. I don’t think we as audience ever exactly achieve a meditative state – there is way too much to think about in this – but there is something very enchanting about staring into water and letting words bubble over you. It removes a number of the barriers that usually stand between audience and language in the theatre. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in Kerouac’s rules, in that rules in general seem to be figured as a kind of restraint. I think Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is fascinating in its theatrical realisation of this idea.

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.