News & Commentary, Stage

Keene/Taylor Project back in the saddle

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For anyone who first started seeing independent theatre in Melbourne in the mid 2000s, the names Daniel Keene and Ariette Taylor loomed large. Even half a decade after their last collaboration, people were still talking. The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, a small ensemble established in 1997, was the default comparison for those who knew. It was a template for what independent theatre should feel like, the aura it should create: audiences thrilled by the discovery of a hidden artistic world outside the usual institutions. It gave us, the ones who weren’t there, something to look for, a feeling intimate and direct.
And when we made our own discoveries — in warehouses in Northcote, above bars on Smith Street, or wherever — what we felt was not only a sense of excitement and community but, too, a sense of continuity with the past. The scene was larger and more alive and more significant for the recognition. It felt more like a real culture.
Theirs was ‘poor theatre’, which meant, first of all, committed theatre, with just the actors and the text, bare spaces, minimal props and long silences; but their focus was also on ‘poor people’, or the urban underclass, characters on the edge of society. Establishing themselves first at the Brotherhood of St Laurence warehouse in Fitzroy, the company’s view really was from the edge. Daniel Keene remembers rehearsing Night, A Wall, Two Men with actors Malcolm Robertson and Greg Stone, both playing homeless men, at their Brunswick Street base.
“They went off,” says Keene, “dressed as they were in their costumes. And when they got back I said, ‘Malcolm, how did you go?’ He said, ‘I gotta cake! Someone gave me a cake’.”
In 2002, they moved from the Brotherhood — via various temporary venues, including the Opera House in Sydney — to fortyfivedownstairs, a new venue just launched by Mary Lou Jelbart and Julian Burnside. It was at fortyfivedownstairs, where the company presented their final — their seventeenth — season later that year.
And so it is that fortyfivedownstairs is where Keene and Taylor, writer and director respectively, are reuniting in November for the Australian premiere of Daniel Keene’s Dreamers.
Originally commissioned by French theatre company, Tabula Rasa, and first performed in 2011, Dreamers is a play about two people in love: an older woman and a much younger man. The man is an immigrant, of a different race, and still trying to find his place in his adopted country. It’s a play of creeping intensities. Fear and resentment rise inexorably beneath the spare dialogue like a foul tide as the community reacts to this inter-racial, intergenerational romance.
The commission was for Daniel Keene to write a theatrical response to two films, Douglas Sirk’s enormously lush All that Heaven Allows (1955) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul (1974), which was itself inspired by Sirk’s film. Both films are about prejudice, one about age and the other about race. Keene’s script, though, doesn’t explicitly refer to either film, and has its own, peculiarly Keene-like tempo and atmosphere.
“I suppose the thing that struck me most,” says Keene, “is that in Fassbinder’s film, Ali hardly says anything; he’s basically silent throughout the film. And I wanted to give the outsider character a voice this time, to break that mystery.”
Anne, Keene’s older woman, will be played by Helen Morse, who earlier this year worked with Keene on Photographs of A for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon season. Alongside Morse will be Yomal Rajasinghe (both pictured below), a young actor originally from Sri Lanka. While Dreamers will be his professional debut, he can boast playing Hamlet at Cate Blanchett’s country house.


“This young man walked through the door,” says Ariette Taylor, recalling the moment she first met her male lead, “and I saw him coming and I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s him, that’s him. No, look away, perhaps it’s not! Don’t get too excited, Ariette.’ And then it was him. He just has something. I think if you put a small crown on his head he could be a prince.”
The cast also includes Paul English and Jonathon Taylor, both founding members of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project. But this new collaboration is not billed as a revival of the influential company. Neither Keene nor Taylor looks on the end of the company with regret.
“I became more and more tired,” remembers Taylor. “It became about doing it for the actors, because for the first few years they basically did it for no money, for the love. Then when they started getting paid I felt we needed to keep working them. A ridiculous idea! Just look at Dan [Spielman]. Doing very well, thank you.”
Keene quotes Joseph Chaikin from the Open Theatre group in New York in the 1960s who said that the natural life span of any avant garde theatre group was about ten years.
“It just ends,” says Keene. “You can’t keep it.”
But even if it’s not history repeating, there is nevertheless a fine sense of symmetry about this new theatre project. Daniel Keene has a significant reputation in France, initially built on published translations of plays which were written for the Keene/Taylor Project. This will be the first time that something he first wrote for French audiences has found its way back to Australia. And who better to prepare a welcome than Ariette Taylor?
[box]Images: Daniel Keene and Ariette Taylor (top) and Yomal Rajasinghe and Helen Morse (below). Pictures by Jeff Busby. Dreamers is at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne from November 7-30.[/box]

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