Green Screen review (MTC Lawler Studio, Melbourne)

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It’s appropriate that the second Neon Festival of Independent Theatre at the Melbourne Theatre Company should end in an image of deflation and disappointment: Nicola Gunn, in leopard print and lamé, perched on a stack of eight air mattresses, sinking gently back to earth. Let’s call it the festival’s sophomore year – anticlimactic, awkward, difficult.

At least Green Screen begins brightly. Nicola Gunn, on hands and knees, sets up small plastic animal figurines in a long snaking line leading to the stage door. Then she writes “toilet” on the door with a stick of chalk and joins the back of the queue. Gunn is a terrific comedian, needle sharp but with deft touch and an inspired talent for self-deprecation and clowning. Pure entertainment, though, has never been enough for her; for more than ten years, her struggle has been toward tragedy, toward an art of transformation.

The problem is her incurable scepticism. Although Gunn’s work always gestures toward communion and elevations of the spirit, she cannot keep uncertainty and anxiety at bay. There is a flaw in her sensibility, in her determination, a persistent undernote of horror, an unconscious sympathy with those empty wastes of chaos and death against which the tragic artist stands. Brilliant as she is, she sees the flaw, and, self-reflexively, makes the it subject of her art. Doubt becomes her theme. Can the work ever be good enough? What is the meaning of success? Can theatre make a difference in the world?

Yes, the poetics of failure are endlessly interesting and rewarding. To be smashed by every obstacle! But are all failures worthy? The question which haunts Nicola Gunn is the same which haunted Auden: is this an important failure?

Green Screen is not. It is smashed only by the want of an obstacle, but it is lame nonetheless. From the opening sight gag we transition directly into metatheatrical angst. Why are we gathered here? Is it, she asks, because I can make a difference, because I, the artist, can change the world? Or is it only because I want to be remembered as someone who tried, as someone who was more than just a bad cook and an indifferent friend? Gunn then smears herself in gold body paint, dons a tinsel crown and climbs the stack of mattresses: a golden calf on a pedestal of air, an idol to be worshipped.

And I swear I read somewhere that Nicola Gunn was done with irony.

While Nicola waits, Nicola as Nicola, enduring herself, a little quart d’heure suddenly strikes up on the others side of the stage, where Nat Cursio, Tom Davies, Jonno Katz and Kerith Manderson-Galvin sit idling around a card table. The scene is a community centre workshop, and they’re all playing versions of their ordinary selves. They’re nice, well-meaning people, but nothing happens here except a lot of chat. The meeting breaks up before it starts. Except for some spontaneous a cappella pop music – a delightful rupturing of the everyday – it’s a non-event.

If Gunn’s last work, In Spite of Myself, at last year’s Melbourne Festival, was the climax of her obsession with the self as a monument of disappointment, then Green Screen is the sad envoi. Even the kingdom of failure, fair bohemia, is now exhausted, another sterile promontory.

Like Hamlet, Nicola Gunn wants a theatre which sets a mirror up to nature ­– to create a heterotopic space, to use her own term for it, a possible extension of life. But we can never see into the mirror because Nicola Gunn is always in the way, examining her own inmost parts, the black and grained spots. Everything else – social transformation, democratic participation, critical analysis – is obscured. She talks about it, but doesn’t show it. All we see is Nicola. And that’s fine if Nicola Gunn is entertaining, if she has on her antic disposition. Here, though, she does not. Green Screen is all flatness, despair, and, finally, cynicism.

The stack of mattresses collapses, and the princess is toppled, reciting as she goes a litany of everyday products: everyday smiles, everyday coffee, everyday faces. Life, she seems to be saying, is veiled by the everyday blah, and the artist has little power to cut through. As if to prove her point, she overbalances and slips off the stack before it has completely subsided. At least her weepy sniffling at this failure to enact failure seems sincere. As Aristotle said of Euripides, it is in managing so badly she is manifestly a tragic artist.

But what about the green screen? The field on which we might project our hopes and dreams? When a sceptic declares that she is interested in utopia, expect only nihilistic theatrics. That’s where Green Screen finishes. An electronic sign board announces that, although art changes nothing, it is enough that it creates a mood of hope. Suddenly the light shifts, and everything turns green. Ah, the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us … but tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther …

Yeah, right. In that green saturation we all looked like bloodless alien mantids, fore-limbs raised for the custom of applause. If nothing happens, then I expect nothing will come of it.

One response to “Green Screen review (MTC Lawler Studio, Melbourne)

  1. Wow, I didn’t see it this way at all. I had a completely different reading of it. 1.5 stars is harsh. I’m keen to see what the other reviews say. I really enjoyed the work. Congratulations to Nicola and co.

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