We are told, as we are told every year since it went annual in 2012, that Adelaide Festival of the Arts box office revenues are better than ever. Such statistics can, of course, be fudged with the minimum of effort but, even if it were true, what do such numbers really mean? At a recent symposium on how we value the arts, I heard a speaker say that we don’t remember the number of tickets sold in previous years; we remember what we saw, what was, to paraphrase the late critic James Waites, carved through direct experience onto our souls.
That this even needs asserting is an indictment of the pervasiveness of our instrumentalisation of culture under neoliberalism, and should serve to remind us how we must reclaim ways of thinking and talking about art that cannot be captured by mere accountancy. Arts festivals are not, or at least not only, cash cows, tourist drawcards. They make space for us to celebrate, to commemorate, to reflect. They give us cause for joy, make us pause for thought. At their best, they help us to understand who we are, where we have come from, and what it means to be alive at this moment in time and no other.
In the Club
I had hoped that In the Club – the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s Festival offering written by Patricia Cornelius and specially commissioned for the company’s new actors’ ensemble – would speak powerfully to the post-Weinstein moment, the collective ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’ being heard the world over in response to the bullying and predation of powerful, and heretofore unimpugnable, men. Rather, I left rueing what felt like a missed opportunity.
The play interweaves the stories of three archetypal young women, each, in their own way, out to have a good time, and each encountering professional footballers who are ‘in the club’, a term that doubles as a literal description of the site of these encounters and the clannish, masculinist code that governs the relations between members of male sports teams. There is Annie (Miranda Daughtry), the damaged product of a statutory rape, Olivia (Rachel Burke), an ingénue who knows nothing about football, and Ruby (Anna Steen, pictured above), older and sexually confident, who, despite her enthusiasm for one night stands (‘I learnt how to make boys like me,’ she says) exudes a weary sense of having been there, done that. Olivia meets the charming Angus (Rashidi Edward), with whom she spectacularly hits it off only to be betrayed in the most horrific of ways. Annie pursues the man who raped her, Sean (Dale March), with a single-minded ferocity that results in the crime’s public exposure (‘the world aches,’ Sean tells her chillingly, ‘at the thought of us dealing with the likes of you’). And Ruby is prompted to reflect on what James (Nathan O’Keefe), one of her many conquests, sees as the emptiness of her life.
The stage is, puzzlingly and unchangingly, inches-deep in water.
If it wasn’t already clear from this description, the play feels ripped from the headlines in a way that merely recapitulates what we already know about the grotesquely misogynistic underbelly of male football culture. It lacks the sense of revelation, the wrenching truthiness of Cornelius’ best work, and feels both structurally and formally messy, elements of verbatim theatre uneasily coexisting with moments that are, by turns, archly stylised and flatly naturalistic. Disappointingly, the trajectories of the female characters flame out into obviousness and, in the case of Ruby, a curious quality of unresolvedness, and even inconsequentiality. It is in this context that Annie’s final monologue – oddly sexualised in its staging, with a mist of water falling behind the actors – registers more as editorial than the defiant assertion of female bodily autonomy it aspires to.
Geordie Brookman’s direction – even leaving aside the question of why a man is directing this material at all, while a woman (Suzannah Kennett Lister) is relegated to the position of associate director – is problematic, unflatteringly heavy-handed in a way that reifies rather than compensates for the play’s lack of psychological or textual nuance. The set, by Geoff Cobham and Chris Petridis, consists of a network of oversized, illuminated beams (they reminded my companion of hashtags) while the stage is, puzzlingly and unchangingly, inches-deep in water. The actors, to their credit, seem unfazed by having to wade around in it the whole time to indeterminate effect, each of them, in fact, giving creditable performances under the general circumstances.
There is no doubt this is the right moment for our theatre to shine a light on the continuum of male bastardry that Anna Krien, in her book Night Games (an influence on Cornelius’ script), encapsulates as: ‘Treating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape.’ But, in wanting In the Club to do more than simply reaffirm this blunt statement of fact, I was vastly disappointed.
In the Club, Odeon Theatre until March 18
The Far Side of the Moon
The Far Side of the Moon, by Canadian auteur Robert Lepage, is amongst the oldest works in this year’s festival, having first been seen in 2000 (the landline phone and clunky home video camera are giveaways). I loved Needles and Opium, the last of Lepage’s high-tech, richly imaginative works to be presented in Adelaide, but that seemed to be a minority view within my circle of friends and arts industry colleagues. By contrast, The Far Side of the Moon seems to have been universally well received, and deservedly so.
The plot is straightforward: two brothers – both originally played by Lepage himself, here portrayed with remarkable skill and poignancy by Yves Jacques – struggle to reconcile their differences in the wake of their mother’s death. Philippe is a depressive academic, obsessed with retired Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, and frustrated by the failure of his dissertation on space travel and popular culture to set the academy on fire. On weekends, to make ends meet, he does telemarketing from home for a newspaper. Meanwhile, André, his flamboyant younger brother, is a high-profile presenter on the weather channel. The narrative – a metaphor of sorts for the unevenly matched rivalry between the US and Soviet space programs, and which unfolds with Lepage’s customarily languid pace – moves backwards and forwards in time, mostly locating us in the present but also flashing back to the brothers’ childhoods, revealing Philippe’s fixation with successive space missions (televised up until the mid-1970s when, it seemed, the public had tired of that particular spectacle) and André’s raiding of his brother’s room to experiment with his weed and record collection. Ultimately, Philippe finds a kind of redemption in the recording of a home movie for a competition linked to the SETI project, a sort of people’s version of the Golden Records that were sent into space aboard the Voyager in 1977.
If the work has a consistent visual motif it is that of bodies floating free into the cosmos, untethered from earthly concerns.
The devices Lepage uses to tell these interlocking stories – video projection, puppetry, and deeply evocative lighting and sound designs, the latter by Laurie Anderson – are by now familiar, but no less effective for it. The set design, by Lepage and Marie-Claude Pelletier, is stunningly adaptable, a wall of grey flats that, doubling as chalkboards, frequently slide away to reveal the interiors of various apartments. Embedded in one panel is the door of a washing machine, a symbol of domestic drudgery magically transformed by lighting and projection into, among other things, an MRI machine, a birth canal, and, signally, a portal into space. If the work has a consistent visual motif it is that of bodies floating free into the cosmos, untethered from earthly concerns. The work concludes on such an image, Philippe’s gently writhing body reflected in the gigantic, satellite-like mirror that is periodically lowered onto the stage. One of the great joys of The Far Side of the Moon is the disjunction created in the space between such numinous moments and Lepage’s script that, infused with both wisecracking humour and a deep melancholy, recalls peak Woody Allen.
I’ve never accepted that space travel is an unalloyed good. It is obscenely expensive, and seems now to be largely in the hands of vainglorious techno-utopians like Elon Musk who would do better to invest their billions in preserving our planet than in designing evermore fanciful ways for the privileged to hotfoot it out of here. I’ve always felt uneasy, too, about the chest-thumping nationalism that is part and parcel of state space programs (a fact underlined by Donald Trump’s apparent determination to send astronauts back to the moon, and thence to Mars). In short – doubtless partly because I was born too late – I don’t get space race nostalgia of the kind Billy Bragg once sang about: ‘It’s been and it’s gone and I’ll never get to the moon/Because the space race is over/And I can’t help but feel we’ve all grown up too soon.’ It’s a testament to Lepage’s ability to communicate something of this childlike wonder that for a moment, watching The Far Side of the Moon, I forgot my reservations, plugged as I was into an era when advanced technology – unlike today, so far removed from our everyday lives, and not yet known to be setting us on the course of the present ecological crisis – could inspire a sense of the transcendental.
The Far Side of the Moon, His Majesty’s Theatre until March 7
Two new and one newish (because adapted from a failed and once-forgotten source) operatic versions of Hamlet have appeared in the last few years. The most recent is by Australian composer Brett Dean, which premiered last year at Glyndebourne in a rapturously received production directed by Neil Armfield and boasting additional antipodean talent in the form of set designer Ralph Myers and costume designer Alice Babidge. It is this production that comes to the Adelaide Festival, complete with original Hamlet Allan Clayton whose staggering performance – he barely leaves the stage for the duration of the opera’s over three-hour running time, and demonstrates extraordinary physical and vocal control and range of expression – I found to be the best thing about it. In other respects, I was in agreement with the critics who emphasised its lack of heart rather than its formal achievements.
It’s a problem, I think, that begins with Matthew Jocelyn’s English libretto, which only utilises around 20 per cent of Shakespeare’s text, and largely that of the First or ‘Bad’ Quarto version at that. Verdi – widely regarded as the best operatic interpreter of Shakespeare – famously advised anybody wanting to have a go to ‘take the bull by the horns’, and certainly Jocelyn is boldly irreverent in his approach, distributing many of Hamlet’s lines (including some of the most well known) around the supporting roles, and shifting, in some cases radically, their positioning. The effect of this is dislocating rather than revelatory though. It all winds up, distractingly, feeling like a hollow metatheatrical commentary on the play itself, especially when, during the play-within-a-play, there is an in-jokey debate about the correct wording of some of Hamlet’s most iconic lines (‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt…’).
This is a Hamlet whose biggest obstacle is not his intellectualism or his irresolution but how erratic he is.
There is in this conceit, too, a suggestion that Hamlet’s psyche – for all its comic flair, and Myers’ immense set, this is a claustrophobically interiorised conception of the play – has been fragmented, his dyssynchronous sense of time another symptom of the madness that Jocelyn and Armfield have chosen to emphasise at the expense of the play’s wider moral and political dimensions. This is a Hamlet whose biggest obstacle is not his intellectualism or his irresolution but how erratic he is. In the hands of a performer as skilled as Clayton, who is able to transmute this into a dynamic mercurialness, this idea of the character becomes a compelling one, but I think it robs us of the ability to see the full contours of Hamlet’s struggle.
Similarly, Brett Dean’s music is interesting rather then affecting. Utilising electronics (as in his earlier Bliss), all manner of unusual and unsettling percussive effects, and an impressively panoramic spread of sound, it is unremittingly intense and genuinely immersive, and intrigues in its sometimes abrupt shifts from atonality to a kind of brittle lyricism, such as when a solo cello accompanies Hamlet’s final moments (‘goodnight sweet prince’). The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Nicholas Carter, powerfully brings Dean’s complex score to life, and the chorus is used inventively and dynamically, sometimes – for example when Gertrude (Cheryl Baker) grieves for the drowned Ophelia (Lorina Gore) – ethereally interweaving with the cast’s vocal lines. There is no faulting any of the performances – in addition to Clayton, Baker and Gore are outstanding, as is Jud Arthur, whose varied turns as the Ghost of Old Hamlet and the Gravedigger are two of this production’s highpoints. Many will also enjoy countertenors Rupert Enticknap and Christopher Lowreys’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, roles that have been inflated into an obsequious, Tweedledum and Tweedledee-like double act and who, for once, get to ‘enjoy’ onstage deaths, perishing in the climactic swordfight that, while brilliantly staged, nevertheless fails to rouse the necessary emotions. Emblematically of this production, it is a curiously bloodless sort of bloodbath.
Hamlet, Adelaide Festival Theatre until March 6
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