• 04 Nov 2008 /  Reviews

    I still have mixed feelings over writing what I did about the Bell Titus. Not that it wasn’t exactly how I felt about the show; but whether it was appropriate; or whether I should be so frank and earnest. Feedback from a friend, not in the business, thought it was a bit rough where careers were at stake; a long-term colleague who has followed my writing since the beginning not only reacted the same way as I did to the show, but was delighted to discover I had not lost any of my ‘punch’. Or pout.

    If I feel squeamish about it, one can only imagine how it is for those on the receiving end. Emotions ranging anywhere from anger to disgust, humiliation, hurt. Or, if they believe enough in their own work, perhaps mere contempt.

    This is in my mind because I recently read Kevin Jackson’s review of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Pig Iron People at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: he gave it a thrashing not unlike to the one I gave Titus. I don’t disagree with him on a single point – but I would certainly not have put it the  way.  Just as Titus did not upset him the way it upset me, The Pig Iron People did not upside me, the way it upset him.

    I’m not sure how many of you are following Jackson’s writings online. An accomplished actor and director, and on the teaching staff at NIDA, my understanding is that Jackson believes ‘enough is enough’, he has nothing to lose, and so he has to decided to start putting his views on Sydney theatre into print. In doing so, he will not be ‘backwards in coming forwards’. His reviews are methodical, thorough and informed; and he brings a strong sense of the inner-workings of theatre-making to his critiques. Clearly Jackson likes some shows greatly, and he dislikes others equally so. He is one for respecting the text (if it is a good one); and he appears to be quite over the situation in Sydney where, in his view, too many new scripts are getting up before thy are ready. This is, I think the main issue he brings to the table in his argument against the John Doyle play.

    The issue at hand, I think, is this. It is not logical or appropriate to expect criticism (‘art commentary’) of any form to be ‘objective’. I’ve thought about this a lot over many years. Rather than aim for the delusion of objectivity, it is for reviewers to study their own prejudices, or ‘values’; and declare them when and where they can. One can get into huge theoretical knots here – but we need to keep one eye on the fact that reviews will appear in print – so how do we negotiate that? In a sense we can neer truly know our own prejudices or values (otherwise we wouldn’t have any). So all I mean here is, try and give readers a sense of where, as a reviewer, one coming from. It is certainly not enough to work form the equation: I like it there for it is good. That is way to impertinent. A critic is never necessarily ‘right’: Their gift is essentially an ability to ‘describe’ what they see. Gaining familiarity with a reviewer’s work over time certainly helps. Comparing apples with apples as were.

    Is it not interesting that Jackson – whose reviews  I greatly admire – likes the Titus as much as I disliked it?  And he disliked the Kosky Women of Troy, as much as I thought it ‘good’. In this instance, there appears to be an appropriate symmetry in our diverging views. In a small town like Sydney, there is not a lot of critical feedback; and not a lot of range to it. So a singularly strong response is quite exposed.

    If you go to this site, you will find two of Jackson’s most recent reviews (of Titus and Pig Iron; and it won’t take much for you to find his reviews of The Narcissist and The Women of Troy). Meanwhile, I have gone back over my experience of Titus: and I come down to this main point. The actors failed to establish a relationship with me: they never attracted my commitment, it was never secured. The intially bonding needs to happen quite quicly in a show. And it comes in two forms. I know where we are going – and am happy to tag along. Or  I have no idea where we are going, but I believe I am in good hands – so I’ll tighten my safety belt and off we go. It is, in efect, a contract, which every member of the audience is asked to sign. Sometimes signals captured by our antennae cause us to baulk. An experienced theatre-goer has to trust that. Consequently, instead of being taken in by the drama, we sit outside it. Sometimes, more or less permanently. Left to do so, a critic is abandoned to a single question: ‘Why?’ Why is this not working for me?

    The critic, may not be able to answer that question to the satisfaction of all, perhaps not even to themselves. But this does not invalidate the primal impulse. If a reviewer likes most things, or is happy enough to let the bulk of them past, then they must trust their instincts when their brain and heart seizes up inside them – and starts shouting: ‘No’.

    I certainly did not enter the Bell Titus planning not to get involved.  For better to worse, one cannot predict a Bell Shakespeare Company show. Their track record is simply too unreliable: from fabulous to downright awful. When you read Jackson, you will discover that he was drawn in very early – and he stayed with the cast. He believed in the universe they were creating on stage, and Gow’s overarching production worked for him. Stephen Dunne, an old hand at the reviewing game, reckons the show also had cred.

    Any critic can find themselves at odds with their peers. As I mentioned earlier on the week, Kippax and I almost always disagreed. Now we have Jackson disliking intensley the The Pig Iron People. I do agree with Jackson that the writing lacks craft. I also agree that it is high time plays presented in this price band were more securely prepared. And I also agree that there is something wrong at the Sydney Theatre Company in this final year of Robyn Nevin’s programing: why indeed were so many new scripts booked into seasons before they were ready? it has been an embarrresing burden for the new artistic directors – and possibly unfairly tarnishes them? Could they or should they have intervened? The frightful production of The Narcissist – the transfer of a full worked-through show – was probably unsalvageable. But was it really too late to help the author of Pig Iron People, a script with some promise, through to another draft?

    Interestingly this time, where Jackson found The Pig Iron People essentially untenable, I saw a work that was less than perfect, but with a pulsing heart. I did not find it repellent: it certainly did not gross me out. So where does this leave us  – we the reviewers? In the eye of the beholder?

    This is a complex debate I am trying to carry here. And it is as much about the ‘nature’ of theatre reviewing, as it is about shows themselves. For this reason, I am playing it out over days. I cannot put this project together in one big gush. Those of you who want to keep up with me, may like to take a look at some of Jackson’s reviews. Before we pick up again. By way of clarification,  I should point out that I posted my article about Titus – put it up on the site, as it were – and then reworked it several times over during the next few days. If you looked at it early on, what is up online now is probably quite different. I realise  this is not the ideal publishing strategy. It must cause confusion. Equally, it is difficult not to want to improve on work when one sees fault in it, and when one can.

    I will return as soon as i can with more – specifically on The Pig Iron People, John Doyle’s first play.


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  • 27 Oct 2008 /  Reviews


    Last week I attended two sobering events. One was director Barrie Kosky’s production of Euripides’ The Women of Troy at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf One. The other, the next day, was a meeting at the Museum of Sydney for artists and others with a concern or interest in arts practice relating to the subject of the atomic bomb testings at Maralinga in South Australia. Both dealt directly with the aftermath of war.

    Two thousand five hundred years ago, in 415BC, Euripides scalded his home-town audience with an unflinching attack on the indifference of his fellow Athenians to the suffering of the citizens of nearby Melos. Just the year before, it’s not only that the Athenian army had thoroughly defeated the island in battle; but, in the wash-up, slaughtered every single male, and enslaved every female and child. What was doubly outrageous about the action of the Athenian army was that this brutal reprisal was enacted as ‘punishment’ for the Islanders’ ‘neutrality’ during this late phase of the crippling Peloponnesian War.

    Unable to speak of the matter directly, Euripides relocated his drama to the semi-mythological city of Troy. The first two works in what was a trilogy of plays have not survived, but the third – The Women of Troy – asks us to consider the aftermath of a war from the point of view of the surviving women and children. Co-adapter of the text for this production, Tom Wright, reminds us in his notes that there would have been many Athenian citizens watching his play concurrently enjoying the fruits of that pillage in the form the recent influx of fresh free domestic and farm labour.

    In typically unpredictable Kosky fashion, we have an ‘extremist’ theatrical event: in this instance, short, pungent, grueling, attenuated by great moments of aural beauty (the music/singing). Ultimately we are served an uncompromising physicalisation of the play’s ant-war theme. There are enough visual references to Abu Ghraib prison for us to forced to recognize that we are also looking at war in our own time. It is a testimony to Kosky’s profound appreciation of the core nature of art, that he is able to frame violence within an aesthetic that reminds us that it is beauty that holds the world together. Not brutality or force…

    It is really quite an awesome work for the stage where it seems almost disrespectful to begin pulling it apart to highlight individual achievements. So much foyer talk about theatre is usually about ‘the play’ or ‘so-and-so’s performance’, or walking out ‘singing the set’. It is high praise to say that doing so here makes me feel uncomfortable.

    A great work of art speaks entirely for itself.

    Robyn Nevin as Hecuba, Queen of Troy, with Jennifer Vuletic (background): Photo by Tracey Schramm

    On the other hand, it would be discourteous not to single out some highlights, tradition being what it is. We have Robyn Nevin back at last, for example, unencumbered by management duties, giving fully to her role Hecuba – Queen of Troy. It takes courage at this point her career to give herself over to requirements of working, not just on this fierce play, but under the baton of Mr Kosky. It’s a spare and humble and resonating performance. I wrote a little while back of the ‘x-ray effect’ of good theatre: and I can see Nevin cringing under the onslaught of her character’s predicament. Coiled like a frightened victim-child familiar to abuse, yet fearful that even worse – beyond her imagining – is likely yet to come.

    It’s an especially generous performance when you appreciate the space Nevin allows for the younger Melita Jurisic to ‘do her thing’! Jurisic is an extraordinary actress who, it appears, can’t help but work at the very frontier of her imagination. She get to play three roles: Cassandra, Andromache, and the beauteous Helen herself. That Jurisic is able to take us to such far off places, physically and emotionally, and yet never stray from the core themes of the text, is testament to her gifts of an actress. She must surely be one of the most extraordinary, bold and idiosyncratic, working on this planet.

    Melita Jurisic as Helen with Robyn Nevin: Photo by Tracey Schramm

    Among all of literature’s famous types, I admit to a special fondness for Cassandra. She who is blind yet can see too much. She who shouts warning, only to be ignored. It would be ridiculous to say I identify with her situation, but I do ‘feel for’ her predicament. Why otherwise would I ‘bang on’ endlessly, the way I do. My other favourite ‘persona’ is little Oskar in Gunter Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum. Banging away literally, but perhaps morally compromised himself? And no-one taking any notice. Dear me, the plight of the freelance journalist. I must write a letter about this to the SMH!

    It has surprised me that few have mentioned the work of the production’s third main actor: Arthur Dignam. A scary voice of anonymous ‘authority’, grave and heartless over the crackling loud speaker for the bulk of the play. And then turning up in an flash electric wheelchair (read mobile throne) as Menaleus, not only leader of the Greek forces who have turned up to thrash Troy (it took them years), but as the cuckolded husband of Helen. Talk about vicious and unforgiving. I could not praise Dignam’s characterization more highly in describing it as one of the creepiest I have ever witnessed in the theatre. A chuckle here, a cheery toss of the head there: meanwhile feeding bread crumbs to the enslaved women, their half-naked bodies mired and bleeding, as if they were mere pigeons in the park. As they say in the classics: ‘Revenge is best served cold”.

    Then there’s the choir, the chorus, the ‘ordinary’ women of Troy represented by Natalie Gamsu, Queenie Van De Sant and Jennifer Vuletic. In his own program notes, Kosky refers to the extensive music Euripides included in the original performance, suggesting tht ‘over half’ of it would have bee sung. Here we get madrigals and songs from John Dowland and Carlo Gesueldo, Mozart, Bizet and Slovenian folk songs.

    Queenie van de Zandt, Natalie Gamsu & Jennifer Vuletic with Robyn Nevin: Photo by Tracey Schramm

    It’s a wonderful design (sets and costumes) by Alice Babidge too: very locker room. A kind of a male jock porn setting – which is totally right for this sickening fable. It gets very freaky when you notice, who knows when it starts, a certain black muck oozing out of a high point on the right of the set. Is it crude oil? What are we fighting for anyway? Damien Cooper keeps moving up the ladder of eminence with every show he lights: here it is, not surprisingly severe and cold and unromantic.  And in the sound department, we have design by David Gifillan, with Daryl Wallis in view of the audience on live keyboard.

    it is not surprising that, early in the season, some audience members found the production a bit hard to take – and felt the need to exit. It is sad that this far into our theatre’s culture evolution, say since the overturning of the British matinee model in the 1970s, that there are still people who pay good money – possibly on a regular basis – who are are not prepared to give up the notion that the art they pay to see intended to do only one thing: which is to reinforce the social values they already hold dear. Or otherwise, in the very least, distract them for a few hours from daily life’s run-of-the-mill worries.

    What is amazing is that so many weeks into the season, you still have people walking out of this show. The night I was there, about twenty left.  On other nights, it’s been up to thirty. Just in dribs and drabs through out the entire event: at some point they’ve had enough. Where do these people live? I mean mentally. Is it not enough it know that if this is a Barrie Kosky production then you are up for for something that is certainly not going to be tame? Have they not been reading the papers or listening into dinner party chat for th past five  weeks sinc the show opened – not to have some idea of what attending this production was going to involve. How cocooned are these people? or willfully blinkered? Ultimately: how undeserving were they of the privilege offered them? I have little respect for them, and indeed not a lot of patience. Why not hand the tickets over to the kids or their more open- minded neighbours.

    This is without getting into the far more complex question of why such people feel the need to flee such a work. A work that is, like ‘Guernica’, ultimately very beautiful. What is it about their lives that thet feel so compelled to cling to? To the extent that a show like this threatens them? What are they refusing to let go of? What is it about sitting in front of this production that poses such a threat? And, yes: how can they not see the sorrowful beauty in it, like walking through a graveyard and reading the messages on the headstones.

    While The Women of Troy had just closed in Sydney, the good news for Melbourne readers is that the show opens at Malthouse on 6 November. Go to this, the Malthouse site for more information.

    Meanwhile, my next piece will elaborate on the meeting I went to about Maralinga; and the way a fascinatingly diverse group of artists are driven, by whatever, to take up this subject in their work. There is some incredible stuff going on. I know I am behind schedule with my work still, since getting back from the bush. The truth is, each post makes it own demands – and sometimes it takes more than a couple of days to put a piece together. I am hoping my regular readers will exercise some tolerance here: for better or worse, I prefer not to let a piece go until I am more or less happy with it.

    That said, I expect I will catch up with myself and what’s going on in Sydney town over the next few weeks. On another front, I am currentyl reading Fiona McGregor’s book, Strange Museums, about her trip to Poland with AnA Wojak – a journey which allowed them not only to see a lot of that country from unexpected perspectives but to present some for their amazing performance art on the way.

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  • 12 Sep 2008 /  News

    This is a quick howdy to those of you who have already started following this blog. You will know that I am off to Ernabella via Alice Springs in Sunday. It’s not easy getting ready for this (like what to wear?) and keep up with theatrical events in Sydney at the same time. I will ‘write a post’ as soon as I can on the Ensemble Theatre’s lively 2009 program, including mention of the book by John Burfitt just published on the 50-year history of this very special and much loved Sydney theatrical institution.

    Last weekend I got to see Waiting For Garnaut, the Wharf Revue team’s latest political souffle which rises more than twice! It was the opening night of its Paramatta Riverside season. The show is bold and funny and more, and this ‘real centre of the city’ venue is certainly getting into its stride programing-wise. More soon.

    Last night I got to see Damian Millar’s play, The Modern International Dead.  Directed by Chris Mead with a top cast of three:Belinda McClory, Ian Meadows and Colin Moody. Strong stuff. Design by Genevieve Blanchett makes history in creating a new means of entrance onto the tiny Stables theatre stage, after all these decades of use! It allows for fantastic flow of action, a feature of this production. I will write more on this soon as well, but I would like to read the script first.

    I am sorry the season of Scorched at Belvoir is not running into next week. You would have had the choice of three war stories at a venue near you at the same time. What with Women of Troy opening next week at STC. Rumours are already leaking out of the usually watertight STC environment. Apparently, if any of us think we have got the measure of Barrie Kosky – we ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Word out too, is that La Nevin is seizing this rare and timely opportunity to go to the edge her acting possibilities and beyond.  What with sharing the stage with Melita Jurisic, back from her years in Vienna, one anticipates ‘performance’ is going to be a compelling highlight of Kooky’s (cf: Kosky spellcheck – lol) latest.

    I will be away out in the desert with Ngapartji mob when this show opens. But Women of Troy will definitely be my first port of call on my return to the big smoke. So long as the Sydney Theatre is still standing and has not been razed to the ground by either the literal or metaphorical pyrotechnics.

    Desert Wear - Made Entirely of Mortein Molocules!

    Cerruti Desert Wear - Made Entirely of Mortein Molocules!

    What do you think of my specially designed ‘Outfit for the Outback’?

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