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Barrie Kosky at the Melbourne Theatre Company

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Yes, he’s still the same rhapsodical explainer, a great torrent of cheek and bluster, but the special rancour director Barrie Kosky once reserved for all things Melbourne-related seems to have faded. A decade-and-half of success in Europe has eased, if not erased the sense of resentment and frustration he once bore for his hometown.

Kosky is here for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre, and yesterday afternoon he joined poet, novelist and critic Alison Croggon in a wide-ranging conversation at the company’s Southbank Theatre.

He seems pleased to be back. Even his obligatory Arts Centre jibe — Kosky’s symbol for all the failings of art and culture in Victoria — was almost affectionate.

So what has Barrie been up to? In 2012 he was appointed on a five-year contract as ‘Intendant and Chef Regisseur’ of the Komische Oper Berlin. After his first season, the Komische Oper was voted opera house of the year by the influential magazine Opernwelt, and this year Kosky himself was named best director at the International Opera Awards.

It’s some turn around for Komische Oper. A decade ago the company was on the way out, struggling for relevance in a city super-saturated with opera. Today it’s regarded by many as Europe’s most vital and interesting company, and their Australian Chef Regisseur is feted as a saviour by the German press.

Kosky is in fact the greatest directorial talent Melbourne has produced in recent memory, with a faultless eye for stage composition and a profound feeling for the raptures and rituals of communal spectatorship. While it’s fascinating to hear him describe his most recent work, it’s also a reminder of how much Melbourne is missing.

Last year, for instance, he revived Paul Abraham’s Ball im Savoy, a jazz-themed operetta with a Jewish-Hungarian-Austrian background. Kosky sees his revival of the operetta as a gift to the German people, a way of helping the audience celebrate the achievements of pre-War Germany, especially of the Weimar Republic, without feeling shame.

Ball im Savoy opened to much acclaim in 1932 a month before Hitler was appointed Chancellor. It was soon forced to close. Paul Abraham fled to New York via Paris and Cuba, but contracted syphilis, and suffered a complete mental breakdown.

“I want the Jewish composer to be remembered for the great music, not because he’s a dead Jew,” said Kosky. “Accept it, remember it, don’t forget it; but, please, it’s your culture. I’m just giving you back what was yours.”

If you’re planning a trip to Berlin he also recommends his Jerome Robbins-free production of West Side Story and a new production of Schönberg’s magnum opus Moses und Aron, due to open in April next year.

Though we’ve seen a few of his touring produtions, the last time Kosky actually worked in Melbourne was 1997, on The Operated Jew, the final production of his legendary Gilgul company. In 1998, he was invited to the Sydney Theatre Company by artistic director Wayne Harrison, made a splash with a very popular, very ocker production of Moliere’s Tartuffe. His The Women of Troy in 2008 was his last show for the STC which toured to the Malthouse. He hasn’t looked back.

And yet Kosky’s appearance at the Neon Festival is apt. He is as responsible as anyone for shaping the popular image of independent theatre — that fabulous beast so beloved of Melbourne theatre mavens. His early work with — first with Treason of Images and then Gilgul – pioneered an audacious, very European theatre of deconstructed narratives, striking visuals and apocalyptic moods. This aesthetic emerged, in multiple variation, as a sort of counter-establishment at the reinvented Malthouse Theatre in the mid 2000s, and continues to inform the current crop of artists celebrated by the Neon Festival.

Despite promising to steer away from recent local debates over the question of adaptation, Kosky couldn’t resist making a few observations.

“In the discussion, the actor is always left out,” he noted, “which is very, very interesting.  There’s this dichotomy between this thing called the writer and this thing called the director when the discussion should actually be about the actor.”

He emphasised that all work in the theatre is a kind of adaptation, and railed against those ­­– who? – who try to tell directors what they can and can’t do on stage or in the rehearsal room.

“I think there’s a misconception, particularly in this country, that the director is some Svengali-like cult figure who gives a tray of spiced cordial to everyone.”

That’s about as spiky as it gets. Other topics included the importance of small-to-medium-sized companies as a bridge between the fringe and the establishment theatre, rebranding subsidies as investments and the joys of perving on actors.

Alison Croggon proved a generous and sympathetic interlocutrix, though Kosky doesn’t need much prompting. He was clearly pleased to be speaking before a varied audience of friends, supporters and younger theatre makers, and there was something irresistible about the pleasure with which he described his current projects and work with the Komische Oper – “the biggest most fabulous playpen anyone could want”.

One response to “Barrie Kosky at the Melbourne Theatre Company

  1. I wasn’t at Barrie’s talk but want to express my agreement with his remarks (at least as reported here) that ‘all theatre is adaptation’ and that ‘the actor is always left out’ of discussions about theatre-making in Australia. A true director, Barrie understands that theatre-making is a collaborative process involving actors and other creatives as well as writers and directors. This process is completely misrepresented by the false opposition between ‘auteur’ directors and playwrights, or between adaptations and ‘original’ plays. The idea of the ‘auteur’ (director or writer) reduces theatre-making to the work of an individual artist: an idea which is of course easier to market, ‘brand’ and commodify than the reality (which is that theatre is the work of a company). Perhaps one day actors will be invited to appear as guests in forums on independent theatre instead of being ‘left out of the discussion’. Meanwhile, thanks Barrie for pointing out the obvious! Best, Humphrey

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