No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Sydney Writers’ Festival

I just spent a delightful four days in Sydney with Guardian Australia for the writers’ festival around the wharfs on the Harbour – surely the most impossibly beautiful place to put a festival, and we had the most unseasonably warm weather to boot. I’ve left feeling exhausted and inspired, and with a reading list that has increased ten-fold. 

Here’s what I wrote while I was there:

David Malouf: my life as a reader

Growing up in Brisbane, he was eight when he first read Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, before his father bought him the complete works at aged ten. Since then, he says, he must have read each play “hundreds of times,” and yet, especially when watching Shakespeare in performance, Malouf continues to find lines he has never heard before. “There is nothing more extraordinary to finding your way into the mind of Shakespeare,” he says, still filled with awe. Shakespeare is, in Malouf’s estimation, the greatest writer the world has ever seen.

My Valentine, Sandi Toksvig review – a love letter to the world

The show is at its most touching when a homage to her friends and their adventures, and particularly the bond they often shared over the English language – and the puns that can be made with a language which is much more complex than Danish.

Thomas Keneally: ‘Joan of Arc was a stroppy sheila’

Watching Thomas Keneally in discussion with his biographer, Peter Pierce, you wonder if this is what their hours of interviews in preparation for Pierce’s Australian Melodramas: The Fiction of Thomas Keneally were like, or is this just a particular domain that rises between the pair when you place them in front of several hundred people, and tell them they only have an hour to look at Keneally’s 50 years as a writer?

Irvine Welsh, Sandi Toksvig and Gary Shteyngart on debauchery

Because of this, the most interesting things we hear are the anecdotes about life, rather than about writing: Shteyngart on his ex-girlfriend, who moved to Florida to date Shteyngart’s doppelganger, before she took his ear off with a hammer (“Maybe she just wanted to tell you apart,” suggests Welsh); one of Toksvig’s “few” drug stories, where she ate half a cannabis biscuit and went to bed; Welsh on discovering “let’s have a couple of beers” in America means two beers, “in the UK they mean two days”.

Culture: what is it, what’s it worth and who’s shut out?

Even as these panelists speak about listening to others, to observing how we all interact with the world, and about wanting to provide people with a voice, they are still finding they must question their own interaction with the culture. Speaking about how our society makes invisible thousands of seafarers who allow for global shipping, Rankin reflects on how he, too has made voices invisible. Recently reading Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, he was forced to question theatre he had previously made about Eureka. “How dare I exclude women from the culture?”

Tara Moss, Irvine Welsh and Damon Young on writing about bodies

Moss has been writing fictional characters for years in her crime novels, but here she discusses the analysis of the ways women’s bodies are perceived – and fictionalised – in society. Reading a section from her book, she relays quotes about women’s aptitudes and physiology from 1873 (Edward Clarke saying an education will steal blood away from women’s reproductive system), 1888 (Friedrich Nietzsche on women scholars having problems with their sexual organs), and 1915 (Charles L Dana and the impracticality of women’s spines for politics). Through this, the audience laughs – how archaic!

Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart and Benjamin Law on being the children of immigrants

When Tan’s mother lived in Shanghai, she was a socialite. Moving to America for love to marry a poor minister, she struggled not only with the change in cultures, but perhaps even more so with the shift in status. Tan says it was in returning to China with her mother that she began to realise the complexities of her life. “I used to think she got into a lot of arguments [in America] because no-one could understand her English,” says Tan. “When I went to Shanghai with her she got into even more arguments, and I realised English only held her back.”

Emma Donoghue: ‘I didn’t need to take drugs – I had books’

The speech was written as she spent time in Australia this week at “the most fabulous of festivals. I’ve been to many festivals, and this is without peer.” She couldn’t have written it before arriving, she says, as “you should be a bit changed at the end of the Sydney writers’ festival.” And that change comes through: she references talks she heard and discussions she had with many writers over the week. She talks of Andrew Solomon’s opening speech, Sandi Toksvig’s Peas and Queues, Kate Ceberano discussing her daughter, and Nakkiah Lui on who gets to tell whose stories.

And do check-out all of our coverage from the four days at our live-blog, with many more articles about many more writers. There I have notes on Irvine Welsh being asked if people can skip his books and just watch the films; a short interview with Nakkiah Lui; a look at what festival goers are reading; thoughts on erotic fan fiction; and a short note of love to a brief glance at a first edition Enid Blyton. 

 

Next Wave 2014

In 2012, I attended the Next Wave Festival as a mentee with their Text Camp program for emerging arts writers and critics. It was incredibly special to return to their 2014 festival as a critic with Guardian Australia. The art and the people and the ideas of the past two weeks have left me feeling invigorated and excited, and my perceptions on the world are a little bit shifted. I may write up broader thoughts about the festival at a later date – after a few days off for recovery – but for now, here are the reviews I wrote over the past two weeks.

Wael Zuaiter: Unknown review – compelling story of an assassination

 Placing this audio work in front of an audience returns radio to a stage of shared experience that has largely been lost as we now listen to the radio and podcasts alone in cars or through headphones on public transport. Here, you feel the collective lean of the audience into Cox’s storytelling; a joke or a detail only fully appreciated by one audience member is highlighted as their laugh carries through the theatre. But in this live form, things are lost, too, and I can’t do what I love to do with a complex podcast that grabs my heart and my mind: press replay, and listen to it all again.

Madonna Arms review – feminist sci-fi parable misfires

A plethora of pop culture references – everything from Alien to Sarah Murdoch miss-announcing the winner of Australia’s Next Top Model – begin to feel exclusionary. If they go over your head, can you truly engage with the work? And when you don’t recognise something as a direct allusion, is that because it is unique to the text of Madonna Arms or is it yet another reference you don’t get?

SEETHrough review: unfocused portrayal of masculinity in crisis

SEETHrough plays with interesting ideas of an unrealised intimacy between men, framed by violence for fear of true physical closeness, and it has all the elements to create a strong work. Co-devised by Kinchela and Walters and directed by Isaac Drandic, the work fluctuates between staged poetry, a play and physical theatre. Unfortunately, none of these performance genres are explored with sufficient strength, and the themes of the work become lost.

Maximum review: two performers push themselves to exhaustion

Maximum isn’t dance which hides the physical toll on the body in the search for illusionary effortlessness. Instead, the toll is the point: the haggard breaths, sweating foreheads, shaking thighs. We see bodies pushed to the limits when we watch sport – and we may even push our own bodies there – but when we watch athletes we’re watching for their achievement and their completion of the task at hand: exhaustion is a symptom but not the goal.

The Club 3.0 review: theatre troupe tries to get audience to fight each other

I didn’t leave The Club 3.0 inspired. I don’t feel a need to fight to acknowledge the fact that one day I’m going to die. I don’t regret not choosing to get in a fight during the show. The artists didn’t earn the right to motivate me in change, or questioning, or action. Instead, I left dejected. If two young men want to set up a fight club with their friends, that’s one thing. To think the story of it makes an interesting stage work is another.

Hex review: the Aids crisis revisited through dance

Hex is a largely allegorical work, Welsby keen to explore and contextualise emotions rather than directly tell a story of the crisis. In this, he builds small worlds that are at times sad and at times joyous, often bringing up ambiguous emotions in their complex and painful story. His choreography is a tribute to those who have been lost, but also a celebration of the community they shaped, and which continues to grow. It is a powerful work.

White Face review: dance exploration of Indigenous identity

Slowly, Sheppard’s text shifts and this parody of perceptions of entitlement, and of choosing to identify as an Indigenous person for personal gain, turns into something more complex. She veers away from the satire as her character begins to realise the lineage and cultural knowledge she has lost: an experience and a pain that continues to be shared by many in Australia’s stolen generations. This tonal shift leaves a lot of room to be further developed, its intricacies explored, but in this short monologue Sheppard presents a very interesting voice.

 

Jane Has A Newsletter

Jane Has A Newsletter is an experiment and a challenge I’ve given myself for the 2014 Next Wave Festival, exploring a new way to respond to art by highlighting things the work reminds me of: perhaps that takes the shape of essays, or podcasts, or films. These responses will only exist as a newsletter and won’t be publicly archived. You can find out more and subscribe here; the first email will be sent April 30.

On writing an experimental theatre-review of Roman Tragedies

The Lifted Brow has recently re-launched their website, and are commissioning pieces which can only exist in the digital space. I find this incredibly exciting, because although most of my career is based around online-only publications (indeed, I find it rather novel and wonderful when my work appears in print) still the formula of reviewing is much the same today as it was mid last century. Online I am able to be freer with my word count (particularly when writing on my blog), insert hyperlinks, and (hopefully, sometimes) engage with commenters, but the overall form of theatre reviews has felt to me largely stagnant.

Last October, in preparation for a panel on ‘criticism in the digital age’, the Wheeler Centre asked me for some brief thoughts on writing reviews. I said:

Despite advances in technology opening up the possibilities of criticism, it remains very conservative. Largely, it hasn’t changed or expanded form, method or purpose in the transition from print newspapers to online platforms.

If we ask for – and witness – arts that push boundaries and forms but our responses to that art doesn’t, then the record of art left by criticism will be much more conservative than the art itself.

Criticism, when done well, creates a record that artists can continue to build on. If criticism isn’t building an accurate portrait of the most exciting contemporary art, and the strongest records are left of work that is most conservative, where does that leave anyone?

I think, for the most part, maintaining this lineage of review structure is the best thing for the art form: people who exist in the same job sphere as me do so because we believe art and the dissection of art is critically important, but also because we have great faith and love in the written word. On the panel (which you can watch at the above link) I spoke about games criticism, and the critics who are using YouTube and online video spaces to review these works: for these critics, the most pertinent and organic way to respond to the work is through video. Not being particularly versed in games criticism, I would suggest that most reviews still exist in a traditional text form, much like theatre criticism; and of course you could argue that reviewing through video isn’t particularly innovative except in the ways, like text, its production and broadcast are more accessible than they’ve ever been.

In theatre criticism, I’ve been loving Exeunt Magazine’s Doodle Reviews and, for something just silly and fun, Edinburgh Furinge, neither of which seem to be particularly dependent on the form of the theatre work, but have the ability to respond just as broadly as a traditional review. These examples, though, are rare.

Occasionally I’ve experimented with the form my criticism takes, always in response to the form of the work and always still in text. My review of Team Mess’ This Is It  was a response to the imagined film in the theatre work, and my review of Life & Times responded to the verbatim theatre piece by being a verbatim review – accidentally recorded at the end of an interview. While structurally quite traditional, my response to Shotgun Wedding endeavoured to take on extra meaning by being published on the date of my one year ‘anniversary.’ Working as a writers-in-residence on Brown Council’s Mass Action: 137 Cakes in 90 HoursIanto Ware and I were forced into a similar (but not as gruelling) endurance project as the artists, allowing us an ongoing and deepened relationship to the work we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and at one of my lowest points in the room I managed to craft a response to the work I am deeply proud of: a response that wouldn’t have existed had I been involved like a typical audience member. Then, too, there is “embedded criticism” which with Ode to Nonsense again I produced a traditional review, but after a relationship with the creation of the work.

With the exception of Ode to Nonsense, these reviews exist because they were able to directly respond to the forms of the works themselves. It is harder, therefore, to develop as a writer in these experimental forms because there are, simply, less opportunities, and because each must be a new organic response. I have no idea what, say, an experimental response to The Seagull would look like, because the traditional response to me seems the strongest way to respond to a traditional staging. Criticism is always a responsive form in which the art must come first, this of course means I have more opportunities to develop my craft in these traditional forms. (Although I’ve been lucky over the first three months of this year to contribute audio responses on Guardian Australia’s Culture Podcast, something I am certainly getting more confident and stronger in. You can listen to here or download on iTunes.)

And so for The Lifted Brow to formalise a space that asks writers to be responsive to digital platforms, and in my case responsive to art’s form itself, is a concept I find very exciting. My review of Roman Tragedies for the Adelaide Festival responds to this work from Toneelgroep Amsterdam by emulating their use of time and their invitation to use social media throughout the production. In just watching the piece I had to be hyperaware of my review – taking notes when I typically never do – and then I had to go an back-curate the tweets and instagram photos to integrate. After six hours physically viewing the show, the process of building the review took another several days, with the curation of the tweets and integration into the timeline being particularly difficult and protracted. Post the writing the review, I realised this was really a work that needed two people to create (plus a third in my editor, the very helpful Simon Collinson): one to review the show, and a second to solely curate the social media, ideally in real time.

My review begins with the voices of others:

 

 

Just as the show relies on its audience, my review relies on the audience I shared that room with.

Despite experimentation with form, perhaps the most liberating thing was complete freedom with word count in a commissioned environment: the piece was able to be precisely how long I thought it needed to be and I was able to write until I stopped, a freedom typically only afforded to me on my blog. My favourite piece of the review, though, is one that came up truly organically as a realisation I came across in the writing: the use of white space towards the end. This space replaced language when the I found the work emotionally overwhelming me. In this written form, I felt emptiness spoke louder than words. 

Although the tweets and intsagrams are so much of the digital space, it feels to me that forcing the reader to scroll past this nothingness was the most native to the online platform. In print, not only would my work not be able to take up the equivalent physical space, but also the way the readers’ eyes would jump from one piece of text to another, even over pages if possible, would feel inherently different, and I don’t know if it would carry the same impact that I hope it does here. Looking back at it now, I think I would have liked to have been even more ambitious with how much blank space we used, how much we forced the reader to contemplate the stretch of time in the work.

I don’t think it is entirely successful as a review: the form has its limitations as much as its advantages. Much was left unsaid, depths of the work are not truly explored as time forced my piece forward, wider connections to contemporary theatre are ignored, and as is typical my perspective on it is dampened by thoughts I’ve developed now but could not articulate by deadline. But, and I think this is particularly important when looking at a production that has been touring the world since 2007, I think my review offers something unique to the work and the global recording of its history. I think it’s a response, too, that offers something to both an audience who has witnessed the work and those who haven’t, and this is something I always strive to achieve in my work.

When will I next get the opportunity to write something like this again? I don’t know. Perhaps the work will jump out at me in advance or perhaps I will see a show and walk out thinking of the new radical way I can respond having not gone in with those thoughts at all. I don’t think the traditional way we respond to theatre is dying or needs reviving, but I hope innovative and truly digital responses can continue to develop and grow up alongside as a contemporary – and sometimes, as a rival.

You can read my review in full here. I am very keen to hear thoughts.

Pam Ann: ‘I only know three straight people: mum, dad and my brother’

She is certainly not one to shy away from giving offence. As we talk, the supreme confidence in herself as a performer and the character of Pam Ann comes through loud and clear: she knows who she is, and how she wants things to be done. Recently in Joe’s Pub, five people were talking so Reid ordered them to move to the back. “They got upset said I’d lost five fans. I went, ‘I don’t care. Get some manners and then come back and see me.’ People. You can’t please them all. You might lose five and you might gain ten. Or,” she says, laughing, “you might gain one. You get to a point in your life and your career where it’s just, like, whatever.”

Clearly, to continue to play one character for so long you need this confidence, and over the years, says Reid, Pam Ann has become “a bit tough. She’s not so soft anymore. I don’t think she ever really was, but she never swore like a trooper like I do now.”

Read the rest of this piece at Guardian Australia

Vitalstatistix: 30 Vital Years

Vitalstatistix Theatre Company will spend 2014 celebrating their 30th anniversary. I spoke to current Creative Producer Emma Webb about the company’s history for the Adelaide Review.

As with any small arts organisation, Vitalstatistix’s history has been rocky. They’ve lost – but always regained – funding multiple times over their history, and partially through this, and through the changing tide of theatre, politics, and feminism in Australia, it’s found itself operating in many different guises.

“It was quite feasible that at any point throughout its history that the company might not have survived,” says Webb. “Small-to-medium sized companies have a really hard time surviving.

“Let alone anything else that might affect an arts company’s ability to survive, but on top of that a company that is a feminist organisation, that’s based in a working class suburb like the Port [Adelaide], and that has produced a lot of political work.

“It’s kind of remarkable, in some ways,” she says, “that it’s survived and thriving.”

Read the whole piece here. 

On classic texts and single gender casts

Among several themes circling around Australian theatre at the moment, two that are particularly prominent and I’ve written about recently, are the adaptation of classical texts, and works exploring gender theory and sexuality. These works exist on mainstages with thousand seat theatres and in independently funded productions in backyard sheds. There is a dialogue existing between these works: the voices of independent companies rising to and becoming embedded with major funded organisations, and then new, younger independent theatre makers seeing this conversation and again playing with it themselves: be that with themes of gender, classics or, increasingly, both.

In the last eight months I’ve made particular note of three theatrical works from independent companies that combine both of these themes using single gendered casts. From Sydney’s US-A-UMThe Lord of the Flies; from Adelaide’s Foul PlayMacbeth; and from Melbourne’s 5Pound TheatreUbu Roi. These three companies place different emphasis on their solo-gendered casts with these old and familiar texts, and each come out with a drastically different message on gender with varying levels of success.

The work that has laid most heavily on my mind, and became the catalyst for writing about these three works is this unsuccessful Macbeth, under the direction of Yasmin Gurreeboo. Staged in warehouse space in the Adelaide suburb of Bowden, Gurreeboo asks her audience to sit through her production twice: once with an all female cast, and then repeated with an all male cast. The text, cut down to eighty minutes with a seemingly endless list of dramaturgs credited in the program, starts with ‘is this a dagger which I see before me, the dagger towards my hand?’, and is a confused edit playing with time and space that places Macbeth in a prison, seemingly recounting the events which lead him there with cast members doubling between characters in the prison and characters in the original story, with no obvious logic to when they are playing each.

Foul Play's Macbeth. Photo by Manda Webber.

Foul Play’s Macbeth. Photo by Manda Webber.

Foul Play’s goal with this production, confusion in text aside, was to have the audience question how they perceive the story of Macbeth and the violence which is inherent in Shakespeare’s story when they view these actions performed by a man against performed by a woman. “I want to offer an audience the opportunity to be in a position to face their own prejudices head on by seeing the same roles, in the same production played out by a males and females,” Gurreeboo writes in her director’s statement. Unfortunately, Gurreeboo and her cast fail to escape the ideas and constructs of gender as written into the original characters, and so these prejudices can never be accessed by her audience. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Perth Festival 2014

Perth Podcasting

As the Adelaide Festival is about to begin, the Perth Festival is entering its last week. I was there last week to catch a bit of the action (and a bit of the ocean) with Guardian Australia, and you can catch up on all of our coverage from PIAF here, and Perth’s Fringe World here.

You can read my reviews of PIAF shows:

And Fringe World productions:

I also took a look at:

On the podcast, I:

The live blog for Adelaide’s festival season kicks off on March 7. Would love to have you all following along here, and subscribing to the podcast here. See you then!

Melbourne Fringe winners in Adelaide

While I’ve rolled out of town to cover the festivals in Perth, artists from across the country have rolled on into Adelaide. But with a program so big, how do you know where to look? For the Adelaide Review, I look at the productions coming to Adelaide that took home awards from last year’s Melbourne Fringe. Sure to be some gems.

They Saw A Thylacine took home awards for Best Performance and the New Zealand Fringe’s Tiki Tour Ready Award. The show, describes creator and performer Justine Campbell, is a verse performance that tells two stories:

“One of a female zookeeper struggling with the prejudices surrounding the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity at Hobart Zoo, the other of a female tracker hot on the tail of wild thylacine.”

Performing with fellow creator Sarah Hamilton, the pair is looking forward to remounting the show in Adelaide. Melbourne Fringe, Hamilton says, is “like a cocoon. A ground to test new work,” where Adelaide is “a hive of creativity of culture. A melting pot in a hot and beautiful city.”

You can read the whole piece here.

 

School for Birds

I’m up on School for Birds (one of my favourite arts blogs) this week, in conversation from December talking about criticism, critics, deadlines, theatre, and artists, saying things like:

I really believe that everyone has a right to talk about theatre. Everyone has a voice and it is valid. Perhaps, because artists have had a reviewer ‘not get it’ and because those reviews come with a position of power, some artists get this idea that they don’t want people to have an opinion because it might be ‘wrong’. I think that is really scary. You might be talking about a small group of critics, but when you extrapolate that out, it is your audience that you are silencing.

You can read the whole thing here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 148 other followers