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.

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).