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.

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.