In his final round-up of the 2019 Perth Festival Humphrey Bower writes of a glaring discrepancy between local and imported work as he reviews:
Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey’s Five Short Blasts
The British Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why
Danny Braverman’s Wot? No Fish!!
Ursula Martinez’ Free Admission and A Family Outing – 20 Years On
Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me
The Last Great Hunt’s Lé Nør
Barking Gecko’s A Ghost in My Suitcase
Cat Hope’s Speechless
Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Our Town
Broadly speaking, the programming of Wendy Martin’s fourth and final Perth Festival falls into two categories. On the one hand there were mostly international high-end auteur-directed re-imaginings of classics in mainstage theatres: from Barrie Kosky’s Magic Flute and Michael Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake (both reviewed here) to Dada Masilo’s Giselle and Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz; even Dimitris Pappaioannou’s The Great Tamer (also reviewed here) arguably falls into this category insofar as it involves the re-imagining of classic European paintings.
On the other hand there were mostly locally commissioned but also smaller-scale or more intimate guest productions that celebrated a sense of place, community, identity, difference, inclusiveness or belonging; though Keegan Dolan’s Irish Swan Lake and Masilo’s South African Giselle also belong in this second category in terms of content if not format.
Many of the works in the second category were also site-specific, immersive, interactive or participatory in staging; ‘post-dramatic’, non-narrative, non-fictional, documentary, verbatim or confessional in genre; and/or multidisciplinary or multimedia in execution. They included the opening ceremony Boorna Waanginy (held over three nights in King’s Park and featuring vast projected animations of Noongar dreaming stories onto the trees); Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey’s Five Short Blasts (which took place on the Swan River at Fremantle Harbor); STRUT Dance/Maxine Doyle’s site-specific dance-theatre work Sunset and Cat Hope’s wordless opera Speechless (both using former Sunset men’s home/hospital site in Dalkeith); local company Lost and Found Opera’s Ned Kelly (staged in an old timber mill in Jarrahdale); local indigenous dance company Ochre and Indian Daksha Sheth Dance Company’s co-production Kwongkan (staged outdoors at Fremantle Arts Centre); and works using more conventional theatre spaces (albeit sometimes in unconventional ways) such as The British Paraorchestra’s The Nature of Why (an immersive work in which the audience shared the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre with dancers and both able-bodied and disabled musicians); Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Our Town (a re-imagined classic staged in the State Theatre Centre forecourt and using a mixed cast of professional actors and Perth community members, as well as equipping the audience with headphones); local Perth company Barking Gecko’s Ghost in My Suitcase (a multidisciplinary and multimedia stage adaptation of Chinese-Australian author Gabrielle Wang’s popular children’s novel about living between two cultures); local indie company The Last Great Hunt’s Lé Nør (another multimedia work staging a ‘live disaster movie’ in an invented language about an imaginary Nordic community dealing with catastrophic climate change); and multimedia confessional or verbatim works by visiting UK performers Danny Braverman (Wot? No Fish!!!), Dickie Beau (Re-Member Me) and Festival artist-in-residence Ursula Martinez (Free Admission and A Family Outing – 20 Years On).
It’s this second category of work that in my view represents what has been most distinctive about Martin’s festivals, with special focus on works with a strong sense of location and on works involving particular communities (in particular disabled artists), together with a broader grassroots program of fostering and encouraging work by and with local artists and communities through initiatives like the Young Artists Lab and other educational and outreach programs.
And it’s this category of work that I want to discuss in the following retrospective, before posing some questions about the difference in quality between imports and local productions.
Five Short Blasts
Five Short Blasts was for me not only the strongest work in this category, but my favourite work in the Festival. Created by Melbourne artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, it was previously performed in Melbourne, Brighton (UK), Hamburg and Prague; Wendy Martin saw it in Hamburg and commissioned Flynn and Humphrey to create a version specifically for the Port of Fremantle and the lower reaches of the Swan River.
Essentially it involved a flotilla of ten small boats (specifically constructed for this edition of the work with an eye to their size, closeness to the water and minimal sonic or physical impact on the environment), each piloted by a local skipper and taking up to four passengers at a time on a 90-minute voyage upriver from East Fremantle and then back downriver under the traffic and rail bridges into the mouth of the river and the working port, with departures at dawn, 7.15am (the departure I took) and dusk. The voyage was accompanied by a bespoke FM radio broadcast delivered through small speakers on each boat from a transmission point on nearby Cantonment Hill (currently the site of the Fremantle Volunteer Sea Rescue service).
I was captivated by the experience, from the first meditative stretch of the journey upriver to the thrilling excursion into the harbour among the container ships.
The score composed by Humphrey consisting of a mosaic including music, found sound and the voices of 30 community members, including Noongar elders, writers, local residents, recreational users, maritime workers and others, talking about the history and ecology of the Swan coastal plain, the wetlands, the river, the harbour and their (sometimes ambivalent) relationship with them (the voices in the harbour section of the voyage included a local farmer talking about the live sheep trade). It was also accompanied by three local onshore performers and two trombone players who appeared on the river bank at various points along the journey – the performers sometimes indistinguishable from spontaneous vignettes that were framed by the work, such as kids diving off jetties, or people paddling, fishing, walking their dogs or simply sitting in solitary reflection on the rocks.
As a local myself who has lived in Fremantle for almost 20 years I was captivated by the experience, from the first meditative stretch of the journey upriver to the thrilling excursion into the harbour among the container ships, and found myself profoundly moved when we paused beneath one of the bridges on our return to hear a rendition of the old Scottish folk song ‘The Water Is Wide’. I was also deeply impressed by the research, development and execution of the work in terms of inclusiveness, imagination and sheer logistics; the process (and soundtrack) included cultural consultation with Noongar elder Marie Taylor, Noongar writer and academic Cassie Lynch, and Fremantle Harbour Master Allan Gray, among many others.
Above all, though, it was the authenticity and craft of the orchestration and choreography (in the broadest sense of both terms) that struck me. Two anecdotes about the making of the work illustrated this for me when I queried one of the artists afterwards. One: that the bass-note that underlay the entire score (in D major as it happens) was based on the echoing sound of water draining from one of the container ships. The other: that the volunteer pilots of the boats themselves came up with the idea of coordinating their synchronised landing at the end of the voyage.
In a quietly spectacular way, Five Short Blasts had much to say about cultural, economic and ecological collaboration. As one of the voices in the soundtrack revealed, the title refers to the navigational signal from one vessel to another that means ‘please clarify your intentions’. On one level, as Flynn shared with me afterwards, this can be translated metaphorically as ‘What the fuck are we doing?’ – to this place, to this planet, and to each other. On another level though for me it also refers to the fundamental indeterminacy at the heart of all communication and indeed all creativity.
The Nature of Why
The themes of collaboration and indeterminacy lead me to The Nature of Why. Inspired by the work of physicist Richard Feynman, the work is a joint venture involving the British Paraorchestra (an ensemble of professional disabled musicians) and their conductor Charles Hazelwood, choreographer and disabled advocate Caroline Bowditch, and composer (and one half of electro-pop duo Goldfrapp) Will Gregory; and was performed by instrumentalists and singers from the Paraorchestra together with an ensemble of local Perth string players and four international dancers who also travel with the show.
The performance took place on the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre (the auditorium was used briefly by the dancers at one point), with the audience entering from backstage and moving freely around the musicians and dancers, who also moved through (and occasionally interacted with) the audience while following their musical and choreographic scores. Between the (musical and staging) ‘movements’ of the work a sound recording of an interview with Feynman about the multiple and fundamentally indeterminate nature of causality was played; a transcription was also projected on a large upstage screen.
The work is essentially a kind of ‘moved’ symphony or suite, and is sustained by Gregory’s excellent and accessible score, which successfully combines elements of neo-classicism, minimalism, folk and pop. As such it’s fundamentally fixed, tonal, and has a strong rhythmic drive, all of which make it well-suited to dance, or at least movement.
In fact, I found the dance component of the work the weakest element, perhaps because of the spatial uncertainty imposed on the dancers and choreographer by the proximity and unpredictability of the audience. Then again, proximity, uncertainty and unpredictability were an essential part of what the work was ostensibly ‘about’ (the musical score being fixed rather than aleatory or indeterminate à la Stockhausen or Cage). On the other hand, the role of the dancers was most effective in physically interacting with the audience and especially with the disabled musicians – most movingly (in both senses) when they acted as occasional guides for blind viola player Takashi Kikuchi and (especially) outstanding blind soprano Victoria Oruwari. The latter provided for me the musical, emotional and indeed visual heart of the work as she wandered amongst us like a prophet singing a wordless score with a rapt smile on her face.
The exhilarating final movement (which infectiously incorporated music and vocal motifs from the opening) had most of us joining in and dancing.
On the night I was there the audience of about two hundred people responded with the usual (and appropriately indeterminate) mixture of uncertainty and enthusiasm, participation and contemplation, which is intrinsic to most immersive performance and live art. It felt as if we too were ‘learning the score’ of the performance and making or breaking the rules as we went. The exhilarating final movement (which infectiously incorporated music and vocal motifs from the opening) had most of us joining in and dancing along, in a fitting celebration of inclusiveness across the boundaries of ability or prescribed roles. This for me was a more powerful underlying theme than causality or indeterminacy – or perhaps it simply extended the latter to the question of identity itself.
In the end, it’s a matter of chance as much as fate as to what abilities (physical or artistic) I’m born with, along with my race, culture, gender, sexuality, family or social class. Perhaps the meaning of these terms is fundamentally indeterminate too, not least in terms of my own destiny.
WOT? NO FISH!!
This leads me to the confessional performance works by UK artists Danny Braverman and Ursula Martinez. On a much smaller scale than Five Short Blasts or The Nature of Why, these were deeply personal explorations of identity and inheritance.
Braverman is a London Jewish performer whose multimedia theatre memoir Wot? No Fish!! is based on a collection of shoeboxes containing thousands of drawings by his deceased Uncle Ab. These were made on the back of salary envelopes from the shoemaker where he worked for most of his adult life from the 1920s through to his death in the early ’90s. The performance is essentially a monologue illustrated by the drawings themselves, a chronological selection of which are unpacked from a shoebox, placed like specimens on a desk and displayed using an overhead projector.
Braverman is a relaxed and engaging performer, and makes some simple but inspired staging choices. These include the Tupperware containers of fish balls and horseradish sauce he shares with the audience at the start of the show; and the white gloves and strange rusty scalpel-like instrument he uses to handle and point out features in the drawings – images of which reappear enlarged on the upstage screen.
I found this show (like the drawings themselves) unexpectedly beautiful, witty and moving; yet it managed to stay just this side of sentimentality.
The drawings themselves however are the real stars of the show: exquisite New Yorker-style cartoons accompanied by witty captions, which document not only the vicissitudes of London Jewish life (including the anxieties of the Second World War) but also Ab’s marriage and family life. They focus especially on his wife Celie and their two sons, one of whom was gay and the other autistic.
As such, the narrative gently touches on themes of identity and discrimination (Ab and Celie eventually made the heartbreaking decision to put their autistic son in residential care). It emerges above all as a love story; the drawings are mostly addressed to Cecile until her death in the ’80s from cancer, after which Ab and his drawings persisted only for another few years.
Braverman deftly weaves himself into the narrative not only in the form of speculations about the context for the some of the drawings, but also in personal reflections about his own life-story – which as he observes at the end of the show repeats that of his uncle in certain significant and even spookily coincidental respects. History, it seems, repeats itself, not exactly in the form of a circle, but rather a spiral, or perhaps even a double-helix.
I found this show (like the drawings themselves) unexpectedly beautiful, witty and moving; yet it managed to stay just this side of sentimentality, partly because of a certain almost forensic detachment in its mode of presentation. In the program interview Braverman mentions the anthropologist Victor Turner’s ideas about theatre and community, and the relevance of simple acts of love and kindness in the contemporary world. As such Wot? No Fish!!! has a great deal to teach us about the ethics of storytelling, confessional performance and the public sharing of intimate family material, a dilemma which Braverman discusses openly during the show.
A Family Outing – 20 Years On
Similar themes, lessons and dilemmas emerged from the work of UK performance artist Ursula Martinez, who was also this year’s Festival Artist-in-Residence, presenting two shows of her own and holding a five-day workshop on autobiographical theatre called ‘Be Yourself’. While she was here, she also directed Australian performance artist Leah Shelton’s Fringe World show Bitch on Heat; she’s probably best-know to Perth Fringe World audiences from previous years for her jaw-dropping striptease/sleight-of-hand routine involving a red handkerchief in the circus show La Soirée.
A Family Outing – Twenty Years On is a new version co-commissioned by the Festival of a show Martinez first presented in 1998. The original version featured herself and her mother and father (who were not professional performers) sitting on a sofa together and talking about themselves.
Since then her father has died, and her mother Milagra now has dementia. The new version still includes Martinez, Mila and the sofa, with her father (and younger versions of his wife and daughter) present in the form of video excerpts from the earlier show. The action and script of the show have changed accordingly (and presumably continue to vary from night to night, depending at least in part on Mila). However some partially matching sequences are performed and screened simultaneously, to fascinating and at times disorientating effect; for me this evoked the temporal, spatial and emotional displacements of dementia, death and loss.
The whole exercise felt both genuinely risky and empowering for both performers.
I have to admit I was somewhat uneasy about the prospect of this show in terms of its potential for exploitation. In in the event, the whole exercise felt both genuinely risky and empowering for both performers. Martinez’s cool intellect, deadpan delivery and sardonic sense of humour were balanced by her evident love and care for her mother. Meanwhile the latter was more than a match for her daughter, at least in the performance I saw. (‘How’s it going, Ma?’ ‘So-fa so good!’)
At one moment Martinez went offstage to fetch power-of-attorney papers for Mila to sign (which felt a little contrived) and left her mother alone with the audience for a few minutes, which gave an added edge to the situation. To my relief, Mila handled herself deftly, and even took the opportunity to mock her daughter and establish further complicity with audience.
Two moments of beauty stood out for me. The first was when both performers read aloud a short ‘play’ that Milagra had written consisting of a dialogue between a mother and daughter, with the roles reversed. The second was when Milagra recited in Spanish (from memory) a famous passage from Calderon’s Life is a Dream (as it happens this was also a favorite quote of my father’s). This followed a similar recitation by her husband of Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’ speech in the original production (which was shown on the video screen).
Notwithstanding its cleverness, I found the minimalism and restraint of the show to be its greatest assets. Like Wot? No Fish!!! it avoided sentimentality by means of a certain detachment and even a hard-edged pragmatism. We all have to face ageing and loss – in relation to ourselves as well as our loved ones. A Family Outing is a courageous offer in terms of the function of theatre as something to be actively engaged in and not just passively contemplated. As a form of interpersonal connection – physical, emotional, verbal, spatio-temporal – perhaps it can even offer us a form of transition into the great unknown.
Free Admission was a new solo work by Martinez that complemented A Family Outing in interesting ways. It’s more properly ‘confessional’ work, albeit one that uses a more ‘constructed’ performance-text, performance-persona and set design.
The text consists of a monologue of short sentences in the first person that begin with the word ‘Sometimes…’ As such it becomes a list of observations and reflections that never quite solidify into maxims or aphorisms. This is because the adverb modifies each statement in such a way as to express an intermittent or temporary state of affairs rather than a general or absolute truth.
The mood swings from humorous to shocking or even profound, sometimes in the same sentence.
In fact the statements are often linked in contrasting pairs – ‘Sometimes…and sometimes…’ This modifies each statement further and makes its truth even more relative. The use of listing, pairing and repetition makes the text a kind of poem; the catalogue-form being a poetic device at least as old as The Bible or Homer.
If this sounds dry, the content of the statements range from ‘hot’ topics like race, religion, gender or sexuality to more trivial or intimate personal or professional admissions, and the mood swings from humorous to shocking or even profound, sometimes in the same sentence (‘Sometimes I think the world would be better off without penises or religion; and I’m not saying get rid of penises…’). The statements includes references to her own (and her parents’) sexuality, racism, jealousy and revenge. ‘Sometimes I’m jealous of Catherine Tate because I once did a show with her about twenty years ago. And sometimes I’m not bothered.’
Martinez delivers the text in a similarly sardonic but slightly more arch style than A Family Outing, wearing a white suit and her hair pinned back. She begins in front of a small curtained proscenium with a raised stage at about chest height, about the size of a portable puppet theatre. She then goes behind the proscenium, puts on a pair of gloves, picks up a trowel and begins slowly building a wall from a pile of mortar and concrete blocks until she is completely invisible behind it, all the while continuing to speak.
The effect is strangely soothing, even meditative – as with the text, thanks to the repetitive nature of the activity and its low-key performance. Nevertheless one can’t help associating the image with contemporary politics and binary thinking generally, especially given the content of so much of the text. In fact, I couldn’t help seeing the show at least in part as a kind of acknowledgement and corrective to the contemporary (and especially online) culture of outrage and group-think (on both the left and the right), with its tendency to identify everything in absolute terms.
Because of the element of self-mockery, Martinez manages to avoid appearing snide or smug in her confessions. To make work about identity which is at the same time inclusive; and to make work about oneself which is not narcissistic: these are no mean feats in an increasingly individualistic and at the same time tribalised world.
The show ends with an exhilarating finale involving audience participation, nudity and live-feed video, as Martinez escapes from the confines of language, clothes and finally the theatre itself. The night I saw the show, the fact that this involved the assistance of a vision-impaired member of the audience only added to the sense of liberation.
Dickie Beau is another UK performance artist with an interest in confessional theatre, though in the case of Re-Member Me the personal element is more indirect and mediated than in the work of Braverman or Martinez. This element of mediation occurs through primary reference to a classic text and character; through the voices and stories of others; through video recordings and other forms of representation, such as shop-window dummies and silhouettes behind curtains – and perhaps most distinctively through the spectacular use of lip-synching.
As its title suggests, Re-Member Me is a deconstruction and reconstruction of Hamlet: the play, the role, and certain famous performances of it. Beau uses (and lip-synchs to) a collage of recorded fragments from some of these performances, as well as interviews with actors, directors, critics and even theatre dressers. Some of the lip-synching is live (and accompanied by trashy music and very full-bodied physical routines, as in a karaoke or drag show); and some it is pre-recorded and projected in close-up onscreen, while Beau engages in other more ‘hugger mugger’ (as Claudius says of the burial of Polonius) activities. These include dismembering and ‘re-membering’ of mannequin body-parts, dragging them around the stage, ‘dressing’ them in bits of costume and arranging them in framed tableaux in curtained alcoves (again like Polonius behind the arras) beneath the video screens.
What begins as an exercise in queer-theatre camp gradually becomes a more reflective meditation on the history and significance of the role in English theatrical tradition – especially for actors – as a kind of performance-benchmark. Lip-synched interviews with Ian McKellen and John Gielgud are particularly revealing on this score, and I found myself both amused and touched by their mixture of vanity and honesty.
What is lip-synching (or indeed acting) but a way of being (and making) oneself (and someone else) present and absent at the same time?
The second half of the work focuses on a particular performance by Ian Charleson – an actor of legendary beauty and charm who was probably most famous for starring in the film Chariots of Fire. Charleson replaced Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet in a production directed by Richard Eyre at The National Theatre after Day-Lewis famously walked out of the production mid-season (and mid-performance) following a nervous breakdown; legend has it that he saw a vision of his father the poet Cecil Day-Lewis during the Ghost Scene; but according to National Theatre dresser Stephen Ashby he was just overtired after a long plane flight from Hollywood.
Unbeknown to most of his friends and colleagues (or the public) at the time, Charleson was dying of AIDS when he took on the role. According to their recollections (and the testimony of critics) he invested it with a unique authenticity and intensity, which may or may not have been informed by his own sense of mortality (or indeed their own hindsight).
No recording of this performance exists, but Beau lip-synchs to moving reminiscences and reflections by McKellen, Eyre, Ashby, friend and fellow actor Suzanne Bertish, as well as John Peter, the former chief critic at The Sunday Times, whom Bertish urged to see the performance. Peter wrote a detailed review of it, which Beau recorded him reading aloud (and also lip-synchs).
As an actor myself, I have to confess a professional and personal interest here, not only in Hamlet, and in the actors interviewed, but also in Charleson himself. I saw him onstage as Sky Masterson in Eyre’s celebrated revival of Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre (he was also renowned for his singing voice) when I was living in the UK in the 80s; I remember rumours about him having AIDS, when the disease was only just beginning to be talked about; and I remember the impact of his death in 1990 at the age of 40 (only eight weeks after Hamlet closed), as he requested that the cause of death be made public after he died, in order to raise consciousness about the disease.
Re-Member Me is not just about Hamlet, or acting, or gay culture, or AIDS, but memory itself – which is of course one of the major themes in Hamlet. ‘Remember me!’ says the Ghost, to which Hamlet responds: ‘Remember thee? Aye, while memory has a seat in this distracted globe!’ – referring in one of Shakespeare’s most daring moments of meta-theatre not only to his own mind but to the Globe Theatre itself.
It’s also this aspect of the show that motivates the various devices of mediation (lip-synching, videos, recordings, dummies, empty robes, hollow crowns) that are used to represent the presence (or absence) of a character or actor. These devices are the ‘representatives of a presentation’, as Freud said of repressed ideas – perhaps including Death itself, which is of course the other ‘big idea’ in Hamlet.
For what is lip-synching (or indeed acting) but a way of being (and making) oneself (and someone else) present and absent at the same time – or in Hamlet’s (and theatre’s) most famous words: ‘To be or not to be…’? Indeed, what is theatre if not a kind of rehearsal for death?
None of the local works I saw – described in the program as being ‘daring new work by Western Australian companies co-commissioned by the Festival and proudly stamped MADE IN WA’ – remotely approached the sophistication of the imported works in terms of conception or execution. (A disclaimer: I didn’t see Kwongkan or Boorna Wanginy, and was performing in Sunset so can’t comment on it critically.)
In part, this has to do with the inevitable risk associated with programming new work as opposed to existing, road-tested productions; it part it has to do with resourcing; and in part it has to do not with artistic skills per se but conceptual rigour. In what follows I wish to discuss why I believe this occurred, and then in conclusion to make a brief suggestions about how I believe it might be addressed.
The most successful local show for me by a long shot was The Last Great Hunt’s Lé Nør. This was an ambitiously conceived and for the most part thrillingly realised work, at least in terms of its means of production. In particular the imaginative use of lo-fi hand-held technology and live animation was in keeping with several of the company’s previous shows, especially those driven by co-creator/director/performer Tim Watts. Here though they were in the service of a ‘live film’ being simultaneously made and screened in front of us; the scale and cleverness was reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The experience was heightened by the dazzling use of an invented language (with subtitles); and a delightful sense of ensemble, with outstanding performances from Watts and Adriane Daff.
Perhaps it was all just meant to be good fun; if so, I found the hectic pace and overall tone of mockery eventually tedious and even a little patronising.
I found the content and tone of the work less satisfying. I struggled with the yoking together of the climate-change-related disaster-movie genre with the imaginary Nordic language and location, ’80s styling (including music, costumes, makeup and wigs), childish characters, soapy dialogue and sub-plots, and working-class tower-block setting. Perhaps it was intended to satirise the world of popular and screen-based entertainment, mediated and fake reality, wrestling and kayfabe, social media and selfies, or first-world privilege; if so I felt it revealed nothing new, and showed little sensitivity to the nuances of class, culture, race or geography in relation to climate change or social critique. In general, I felt that the show suffered from conceptual over-reach and confusion (at least on my part). Perhaps it was all just meant to be good fun; if so, I found the hectic pace and overall tone of mockery eventually tedious and even a little patronising.
This was relieved only by a sequence of delirious beauty halfway through the show when two of the female characters, who were falling in love, chatted and flirted in hushed tones while spraying (precious) water on a collection of fake miniature indoor plants; their voices went off-mic and were replaced by pre-recorded dialogue, while the visual editing dissolved into a dreamlike montage. This was the only moment for me when a disruption in the form produced a sensory experience that felt like a genuine encounter with the real.
The sequence reminded me irresistibly of The Irresistible, a much more focused and sophisticated co-production by the Last Great Hunt with fellow local independent company Side Pony at PICA in 2017. In that show similarly screen-based visual and narrative tropes were combined with the inventive use of lo-fi staging and in particular the manipulation by the two performers (Watts and Daff playing multiple roles) of hand-held voice-altering technology. The result in that case was a hauntingly beautiful and disturbing aesthetic in the service of an original and autonomous fictional world, featuring complex themes, characters and performances, while the mood shifted continually from comedy to horror, and the genre from social satire to psychological drama.
Comparisons are odious, but to me The Irresistible was a groundbreaking show worth investing in by a major festival, whereas Lé Nør felt more like an over-ambitious but slightly undercooked fringe show.
A Ghost in My Suitcase
Barking Gecko’s A Ghost in My Suitcase was another impressive local work in terms of its staging, featuring a multi-skilled and mostly Chinese-Australian cast (co-directed by Ching Ching Ho and Matt Edgerton); the multidisciplinary use of theatre, puppetry, magic, movement and martial arts; and an inventive and beautifully unified design, seamlessly combining set and costumes (Zoe Aktinson), lighting (Matt Marshall), music and sound (Rachael Dease) and projections (Sohan Ariel Hayes).
Strong on spectacle, I felt the impact of the production was let down by some clumsiness in the writing (or more particularly the adaptation) and some of the performances (especially in terms of vocal strength). In general I felt there was simply too much spoken text (at least for this cast), and that much of it was one-dimensional and even redundant. The main character’s expository monologues to the audience in particular sounded like they had been lifted straight from the novel, and I felt that their content could have been conveyed more dramatically and succinctly in dialogue. The latter could even have been projected as surtitles in Chinese and English, honouring the intercultural nature of the story. This would have freed the performers (who were highly skilled in movement) to physicalize their interactions entirely , and allowed the production to play to its strengths as work of visual theatre.
Both these new local multimedia works were however far more effectively realised than the local commissioned operas, Ned Kelly and Speechless, or Black Swan’s misconceived version of Our Town.
I’ve reviewed Ned Kelly in detail elsewhere. Suffice to say here that the production was vitiated by the location (a vast timber-mill), a mismatch of professional soloists and community chorus, and poor direction.
Speechless suffered from similar problems. The score is a fascinating and powerful work of new music by Cat Hope, using graphic notation and a wordless libretto based on the Human Rights Commission’s 2014 Report on Children in Immigration Detention. However as with Ned Kelly the road to hell is paved with good intentions; an apt motto over the entrance to the vast Sunset hospital dining hall where the work was staged could have been from Dante’s Inferno: ‘Relinquish all hope ye who enter here.’
The score was vividly realised by the soloists (especially a searing performance from Sage Pbbbt, using throat-singing and other techniques, alongside Indonesian metal vocalist Karina Utimo and more classically trained singers Caitlin Cassidy and Judith Dodsworth), supported by gripping playing from the Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel New Music Ensemble (energetically conducted by Aaron Wyatt) and worthy contributions from a (somewhat underused) community choir.
As with Ned Kelly however I felt that the production foundered in terms of its staging. This suffered from unclear direction, half-hearted choreography and an abstract colour-coded lighting, set and costume design which was apparently related to the content but in a way that remained largely cerebral. All of this only exposed the fundamental flaw in the work as an opera, which was the underlying lack of dramatic action, conflict or agency on the part of the wordless protagonists (or indeed arguably the score, which like much post-tonal music remained mostly stuck in a register of dread or horror).
The work raised more general questions for me about the effectiveness of much refugee-art – and in particular the ethics of work that is made about refugees but neither by nor with them, at least as key creatives.
Indeed I felt that Speechless would have been most effectively presented as a concert performance. Even with a visionary director at the helm, the work is arguably more of an oratorio than an opera, somewhat in the vein of other great modernist protest-works like Tippet’s A Child of Our Time, Britten’s War Requiem or (perhaps closer in musical language) Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.
I also had some misgivings about the conception itself of using a report into detention as the basis for a wordless libretto. This seemed to render the victims doubly speechless, reducing their humanity and individuality even further to a nameless mass of otherness emitting what amounted to a prolonged scream. As such, the work raised more general questions for me about the effectiveness of much refugee-art – and in particular the ethics of work that is made about refugees but neither by nor with them, at least as key creatives.
These misjudgements were nothing however compared with the compound misconceptions that undermined Black Swan’s versions of Our Town (which was even more painful in comparison with other re-imagined classics in the Festival). On paper, the idea of casting a ‘real’ doctor or ‘real’ journalist as their fictional counterparts might sound appealing, if simplistic – one doesn’t have to be a doctor to play a doctor, but one does have to act, despite the common misconception that acting is somehow less of a skill than doctoring. Onstage however the relevance of the performer’s day-job soon evaporates; and the evident limitations and discomfort of the non-professional actors was only exacerbated by casting them alongside professionals in three of the leading roles.
The fact that the only professionals were indigenous actors, again, might have looked good on paper, but onstage it came across to me as token and even vaguely demeaning – as if professional indigenous actors would somehow ‘integrate’ better (perhaps because they are somehow more ‘community’) than white actors with an otherwise predominantly if not entirely white non-professional cast.
None of this is to gainsay the value of community theatre as such, nor the use of non-professional performers, even by a professional or ‘flagship’ State Theatre Company. Previous Black Swan productions like You Know We Belong Together (which consisted entirely of a cast of performers with Down Syndrome playing themselves and occasionally joined onstage by members of the audience) and The Events (which featured community choirs singing but not speaking alongside two professional actors) have triumphantly vindicated this. Here however the use of non-professional and professional actors indiscriminately seemed like a form of stylistic and conceptual confusion.
The most effective moment of the production for me was the brief cameo by the man from Chicho’s Gelato Shop adjoining the State Theatre Centre as an ice-cream vendor.
As for the idea that Wilder’s nostalgic, somewhat dated and sentimentally wholesome rendition of a fictional small town in pre-WW1 rural New Hampshire is somehow comparable with present-day Perth, simply because Perth is in some sense ‘our town’, the analogy is reductive at best. In defence of Wilder’s play, one might argue that it is really about the passage of time itself, rather than any particular time or place; and that Grover’s Corners is an allegorical town rather than a real one, like the contemporaneous small towns of Frank Capra films like It’s A Wonderful Life (but without any of Capra’s political-satirical bite). As such, however, it makes little sense to set it in Perth – quite apart from all the anomalies of rural American language and culture, such as its small-town piety, which is continually invoked in the play. Conversely, if one wanted to make an Our Town about Perth, surely the logical step would be to adapt the text accordingly, or even devise a whole new play, perhaps in collaboration with a genuinely ensemble-based community cast. Indeed, the most effective moment of the production for me was the brief cameo by the man from Chicho’s Gelato Shop adjoining the State Theatre Centre as an ice-cream vendor, as he didn’t even attempt to play a character but simply (and hilariously) played himself.
Apart from this brief moment, nothing was gained by staging the play in the State Theatre Centre courtyard. A cold, hard, uncongenial space, it looks and feels like a prison yard. Neither a theatre nor exactly a non-theatre space, it has no sense of community (unlike, say, a church or school hall); and the play as written is highly meta-theatrical (especially the narrator-role of the Stage Manager), and as such clearly intended (at least) to be staged in a theatre – or conversely a space that is clearly non-theatrical. As with the casting, the choice of the courtyard seemed almost demeaning as a venue for this artfully ‘humble’ play, especially in the context of Festival-time, when the two main stages were occupied by international ‘prestige’ shows.
These mistakes were further compounded by the use of radio mics for the actors and (more grievously) headphones for the audience. Possibly this was to address audibility issues resulting from the use of non-professional actors and the space; though this could presumably have been achieved with the now-standard theatrical use of loudspeakers. The program note suggested however that the headphones were in the service of a deliberate radio-drama or podcast aesthetic. This was underscored by a rather banal soundscape featuring some very literal sound-effects, which were only semi-audible and easily confused with ambient noise. Sound effects of course have a very different effect when used ‘live’ in a theatre (as Wilder intended) where they form part of an ironic Brechtian minimalist and meta-theatrical aesthetic; or indeed in radio-drama or podcasting, where sound becomes space; here they served only to deaden the imagination. In any case, the headphones had the effect of disconnecting me from the performers, the venue the rest of the audience and the collective here-and-now of live performance.
What to do about the glaring discrepancy between local and imported work? One answer might be to program existing works as well as new ones – for example, to remount Lost and Found’s excellent Actéon (staged last year at the UWA Swimming Pool, and reviewed here) or The Last Great Hunt’s The Irresistible with the benefit of extra resources and perhaps in a larger venue for a whole new Festival audience (and potentially other major Festivals). A more structural approach might be to acknowledge the curatorial role of the Festival by appointing a Festival dramaturg to oversee the development of new work from go to whoa (with the option of a firm and fearless extra whoa if necessary).
None of this is to detract from the considerable achievements of Martin and her team – or of local Perth companies and artists. If anything, it is rather to suggest how future Festivals might give further support to the local arts community.