- Middle aged man, driving a bronze SUV, in sunglasses, windows up.
Cyclist wends her way down Wilson Street, Darlington. She’s thinking about the craziness of her life at the moment. Past. Present. Future. Thoughts can be represented with interpretive dance. Although it is 8am the traffic is light and she’s making good time. The sun in shining. The birds are singing. Life’s good. She’s wearing a bright red coat and a bright green helmet. She has second thoughts about her outfit: she thinks she probably looks like a Christmas tree. She comes to a roundabout and sees an SUV coming up the street to her left. She thinks unconsciously ‘no worries'; she’s got right of way two times over because he’s on her left and he’s not even at the roundabout yet. She enters the roundabout. She realises that the SUV is not stopping.
Cyclist: (loudly) Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.
She slows down so the impact is not dramatic. He hits her. Luckily he’d slowed to turn the corner too. Her bike scratches the front of his car, but she comes off the bike but does not fall over. There’s a short standoff. Cyclist looks directly at the driver desiring acknowledgement of his wrong and an apology. The driver gestures impatiently for the cyclist to move on.
Cyclist: (Loudly, gesticulating wildly) Aren’t you even going to apologise for almost running me over?
The driver, unresponsive, reverses a little in order to get around the cyclist and speeds off down the street. Cyclist looks around for recognition of this injustice, and the impertinence and gall of the man in the unnecessarily large car. Nobody is around. Cyclist rides off thinking how glad she was to not be hurt, how much she wanted to kick the car, but also glad that she is that she had restraint, because by not kicking the car she retains the moral high ground. The second wave of thoughts can also be represented with interpretive dance, but ideally dancers would have a costume change to signal that the mood of the thoughts had darkened somewhat since the incident.
Playwright’s statement: This is a follow up to Wednesday Morning, a representation of the possible harmony between Cyclists and Pedestrians in future. This drama perhaps represents the particularly toxic dimension of the current relationship between Cyclists and Drivers in Sydney from the Cyclist’s perspective.
- Grandpa – MID 60s
- Grandaughter – 5 or 6
The intersection of a bike path and pedestrian crossing. Grandpa is walking his grandaughter to school. They approach the pedestrian crossing at the same time as the cyclist. Cyclist stops. Grandpa and Granddaughter cross bikepath and road. As they are crossing the road the dialogue starts.
GRANDAUGHTER: Bicyclists stop for pedestrians.
Cyclist rides out of earshot.
I wrote this play because I feel it captures the possibility for the public opinion of cyclists to change in future, even if not in my lifetime. As a cyclist I am constantly confronted by angry pedestrians and motorists who believe that cyclists are there simply to make their day more difficult. Here the hope that things will change is represented as an intergenerational possibility; public opinion can change, but change is gradual. Perhaps cyclists need to be ok with this. We cannot hope for the attitude to change straight away, but perhaps take comfort in the knowledge that it might someday. The urtext is, of course, King Lear. Lear dramatises the transition of the kingdom; in Wednesday Morning we see the roads transitioning to the cyclists, “The younger rises when the old doth fall” says Edmund. Except my play expresses the hope that things will turn out better in the end, and whether or not Lear is a fundamentally hopeful play is debatable. Adapting Lear is a monolithic task for any playwright, I guess this is why I chose to get it out of the way early in my career. My main aim in adapting Lear was to strip back Shakespeare’s main plot to its bare bones, and represent it in a shorter form in line with the desires of contemporary audiences. I might add that this is verbatim theatre; there is a kernel of truth within it and it is that kernel that I aimed to represent in the work. I hope you enjoy the show.
I spent the afternoon of Sunday 28th, November at John McCallum’s Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture and at Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. And, here I’d like to make comment on a surprising cross over between these two events.
Firstly, on paper, the two events seem entirely unrelated. McCallum’s lecture (A summary of which can be found here) called for a spectacular and grotesque turn in Australian theatre, a celebration of difficulty and excess, rigorous reimagining of the Canon, a revival of lost plays, all to happen alongside the continuous development of new voices; he suggested that audiences who don’t want to be “theatre-fucked” by this spectacular, affecting future-theatre should stay at home or go see a film instead. Incidentally, I went and saw Monsters right after McCallum’s lecture. This, I can assure you, was in no way causally linked to the lecture itself. To lay my cards on the table: I am happy, if not eager, to go places to be fucked (theatre or otherwise). So, my trip to the cinema to see Monsters was purely coincidental. Monsters is a low-budget, sci-fi horror drama set in the borderlands between Mexico and the US, in about 2017. The premise of the film is this: Giant Squid-like alien creatures have invaded the borderlands and the area itself- “the infected zone” -is fenced off on both the Mexican and US sides, in between is a war zone where the US Military attempt to keep the Aliens under control. Sam (Whitney Able) is injured in a Mexico, she is the daughter of a rich media tycoon. A photographer who works for Sam’s father, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is given the task of delivering her safely back to America before the escalation of the war between the military and the Aliens. And, for a range of more-or-less plausible reasons, they miss the last ferry home and in order to get back to the US, they have to pass through the “infected zone”. The film is Sam and Andrew’s journey through the dangerous, alien infested borderlands between Mexico and the US.
Like I said, on paper McCallum’s lecture and Monsters have very little in common.
So, bare with me as I try and draw a link between them. The decline of 19th Century Spectacular Theatre was largely due to the development of Motion Picture (Spectacular Theatre’s heyday was in the early-to-mid 19th Century and the first private screening of a motion picture projection is dated at 1895). The two forms dovetail in surprising ways: the ambitions of the spectacular theatre maker were more or less shared by early film makes such as the Lumiere Brothers. Both camps wanted to construct a realistic world, the very spectacular existence of which, would elicit some kind of emotional response from an audience (be it shock, bewilderment, fear or wonder). Spectacular Theatre was even the testing ground for technologies that were important precursors to early cinema such as the Magic Lantern. Needless to say, the film makers won in the end. In the theatre, machines required to achieve the spectacle in real-time were so clunky that often plays had to be stopped mid-scene in order to set up the big “illusion”, the noise of the machines themselves often drowned out the dialogue, and, while electricity was installed in the theatres by the late 19th cenutury, it was not very versatile. 19th Century Spectacular theatre was, in a word, cumbersome. Meanwhile, all the Lumiere Brothers had to do was to film a train travelling towards the audience and everyone was screaming and jumping from their seats in terror, awe and amazement.
So, film studios became workshops for the spectacular, and the theatre became a place for austere psychological and emotional experimentation in form and content. Now, of course, this is an all-too-clear-cut distinction, but in relative terms this distinction between mainstream theatre and film in the 20th century it more or less holds true.
Yesterday, I witnessed a radical reversal of these basic principles. McCallum argued convincingly for a neo-spectacular dramatic theatre, drawing on the ambitions of the 19th century practitioner, the philosophy of Meyerhold and the aesthetics of performance art (or Postdramatic Theatre). Edwards’s Monsters is being heralded as a new wave in sci-fi film making largely because it is a sci-fi special effects film that is not interested spectacle (The Guardian called it the anti-Avatar).
Yes, but what’s the link between the two? Well, I guess that’s complex. But, in short, there is a relationship between spectacle and story. In a visual storytelling medium such as film or theatre, stories are entangled with spectacular effects but are not coextensive with them. In other words, the spectacular does not merely illustrate a story, it generates another dimension within a story. And, in Monsters the opposite occurs, in removing the focus from sequences of spectacular special effects literally Edwards made the space for a different story to be told. And (to riff on McCallum’s invocation of Barrie Kosky for a moment) in Kosky’s spectacularly excessive theatre, his desire to construct particular images or spectacular states seems to change the story that he wants to tell; from his metamorphosing of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in The Lost Echo to his unique setting of the storm in King Lear. John Bell’s reflection on Kosky’s tendency to take flight from the text in his Memoir is a good illustration of the effect of what happens to story when you’re interested in the spectacular, “He was not particularly interested in the precise meaning of the text, more in what images the text threw up, or in his subjective reactions to those images. We had to watch out that he didn’t misinterpret the meaning of an entire speech in order to make a visual statement.”
What is at stake, therefore, is nothing less what a story can mean. While John Bell may have thought it was a bad thing for Kosky to miss the point of Lear, reimagining the classics is not a new thing (it was done to Lear in 1681 when it was turned into a romantic comedy, and it was done by Shakespeare in the first place). What a turn toward spectacular does for McCallum, or away from the spectacular does for Edwards and, what either/or could do for an audience, is reinvigorate the respective medium’s capacity for engagement in a world beyond the theatre or cinema. McCallum’s argument for a spectacular theatre is neo-Brechtian in the sense that he does not want happy-clappy audiences sitting passively demanding to be entertained and leave contented. He wants the audience to be remade by their experience in the theatre, and it was his argument that an avante-garde spectacular theatre can achieve this by means of jolting an audience out of his or her seat . Further, (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) in Monsters, rather than a focus on a spectacle that radically re-enforces a fear of otherness and a trust in Military force, by turning away from spectacle Monsters in fact critiques the social and politic norms upon which many sci-fi films are built, it becomes a celebration of otherness and critique of such force.
While none of what McCallum said or Edwards did was totally original, such revolutions in form have come before, why have they done it now? It struck me as oddly serendipitous that I should sit through that lecture and that film on the same day. Not because I rarely go to lectures or films, but that the two should speak to each other in such strikingly complimentary ways. Is this the zeitgeist? Does this foreshadow the revolution? Well, possibly not, but if McCallum’s cries for complexity and difficulty are heard, and if Edwards film makes enough at the box office to inspire others to go out and tell a simple story with a laptop and a couple of keen actors, then perhaps audiences will also change their ways. Then, we can reclaim spectacle from the mainstream, for the purposes of radically re-imagining the world. Then, we can reclaim narrative from the grips of moral and social norms. And then, we might have a revolution on our hands.
 Bell The Time of my Life p.262
 I think that another obstacle here is audience cynicism and apathy. I recall people reflecting on the “clichéd” use of shit and blood by Kosky during the Bacchae section of The Lost Echo, and after Monsters yesterday I overheard one audience member talking about the heavy-handedness of some of the dialogue. Cynicism, enlightened false consciousness, OR, a predisposition to respond how one thinks they should respond rather than trying to keep their response related to how they actually do, is an unfortunate side effect of a university educated middle-class.
 This is a bit clean, District 9 critiques military bureaucracy and is massively spectacular but there is other otherness in Monsters that is given breathing space by virtue of the relief we get from special effects, such as mexican guerilla’s in the infected zone that turn out to be really nice men that also go against the standard representation.
I used to work for Tamarama Rock Surfers at the Old Fitz, and since my last project there finished up in late April, I’ve found it difficult to go back for a casual visit. I think my reluctance to return is analogous to not wanting to see an ex-partner for a little while; after a long relationship and difficult break-up, you generally need to wait some time before you see each other again. So, on Sunday I went to the Old Fitz and, no, we didn’t end up shagging in a vain attempt to relive the glory days, but the company was fine and the coffee was quite good. I mean that all quite literally, I was even given a warm cup of coffee from Kym Vercoe during the performance of Seven Kilomemetres North East on Sunday night.
SEVEN KILOMETRES NORTH EAST: Kym Vercoe & Version 1.0, in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers (N.B. SPOILERS WITHIN)
SKNE is a devised work that responds to Vercoe’s three trips to Bosnia and the Balkans. And, in particular, her stays at the Višegrad Spa Hotel, near Višegrad on the River Drina. SKNE is a devised one-woman performance that is part personal travelogue, part political-history lesson that combines monologue and audio-visual footage in a hybrid-narrative performance. The monlogue and performance is very polished and all AV went off smoothly, in trademark Version 1.0 style, demonstrating just how AV can and should be done in the theatre. The video footage, all of which was taken on Vercoe’s most recent trip to Bosnia, was successfully drawn into the narrative and made an integral part of the storytelling.
SKNE is a piece about the complex relationship between the tourist (Vercoe) and the place she visits (Bosnia/Višegrad). We learn a cool new word, “thano-tourism”. This issue is really interesting; “thanotourism” is travelling to a place with a history of death and trauma. Naming such an activity instantly makes it easier to question why we go to places like Auschwitz or The Killing Fields, and what it means to visit such a place. In short, why do we choose to be thanotourists? Vercoe, we discover, is the “accidental thanotourist”. That is, she went to a location unaware of the specifics of its violent past. Seven Kilometres North East is an attempt to comprehend her experience as an “accidental thanotourist”.
I really like the brief: rather than a piece that works to demonstrate the complex relationship between past and present, and the always already problematic nature of tourism, SKNE takes such entanglements as its point of departure. This is rich ground for a performance piece. I really like the set of questions the performance seeks to illuminate and explore: when we discover we are holidaying and enjoying ourselves on a site of genocide how can we respond? What can we do, if anything? What should we do, if anything? What do we do, if anything? How is the past implicated in the present? And, more obliquely, how is the present implicated in the past?
But, as a creative response to this matrix of problems, I do not think this piece really worked. And, in this I am somewhat alone, there is wide consensus that this is an excellent work of theatre. But it is because of the general affirmitve responses directed towards the work that I feel somewhat less afraid to get a bit more critical about it.
The entire performance was built upon Vercoe’s emotional response to the situation she ends up in: “Seven Kilometres North East” of Višegrad is the site of Višegrad Spa Hotel which was the site of mass atrocity. I want to go out on a limb and claim that the piece didn’t work for me because Vercoe’s own emotional response, especially really powerful emotions like guilt and shame, were not fully explored. And conversely, the specifics of the history were somewhat elided. This is important because it this piece attempts to link up the history of the place she visits with Vercoe’s emotional response to discovering that history. As a result, I read the central narrative outcome of the performance itself as a somewhat reductive substitution of the performer’s guilt at enjoying herself in Višegrad, for moral outrage at what happened. This emotional sleight of hand undoubtedly unlocks the personal paralysis caused by guilt, but what does it leaves us with? A feeling? An emotion? Or a rhetorical question: “why do people rape and kill each other?” Moral outrage doesn’t communicate the complexity of the problem the performer was trying to articulate. And, I would argue, it likewise does not get traction on her role, if any, within it.
The list of questions I traced above above seem pertinent here, in such a situation what can we do? what do we want to do? what should we do? and what do we do? are all different dimensions of a response, and, although the questions look very similar, I reckon real answers are likely to look very different. For instance, we can try and find the people responsible and bring them to justice, but maybe we want to go have a beer and stare at the river. For me, Seven Kilometres North East tried to pretend that what we can, should, want to and do do in a situation like this are the same, and, I felt that the performance was didactic in that in the end it forced me to feel that way too.
Having said this, the emotional king hit of the ending (and I felt it to be sure), certainly made me think through why I was somewhat disinterested in the travelogue section of the piece and why I ended up with no real particular detail about what did happen in the past, but why I felt sad for both Vercoe and the women who were raped and murdered in the hotel. The piece was forced me to feel what she felt. And in this the piece is incredibly successful, which is a real achievement. But to really entangle the personal and the historical, a more rigorous excavation of the personal and the historical than what was undertaken by Seven Kilometres North East.
Still, it’s taken a while for me to articulate all this, so it is not a superficial piece. It is doing complex things, but from my point of view I would like them done differently. In closing, regardless of what I think, SKNE definitely worth a look.
Seven Kilometres North East is on at the Old Fitz until Saturday 16th October. Tickets available at rocksurfers.org
ANOTHER SPECIES ENTIRELY: Friends with Deficits
Well, in comparison to Seven Kilometres North East, Another Species Entirely really was really another species entirely. 30 minutes of strange things being done with fruit, vegetables, wine and locks of hair. Friends with Deficits are an emerging performance collective who want to perform together, according to their program, ‘until the grow old and wrinkly’. And I hope they do, I’d really like to see where their work ends up. This particular piece, which I assume is unfinished, defies clear description. It seems to be about friendship and intimacy, drinking wine and being cantankerous. I would claim there was a radical feminist sensibility locked deep within the piece, but perhaps I like to think everything does, and certainly I couldn’t claim to know precisely the nature of this collective’s sensibility anyway. It was non-narrative, it involved hair and white stockings and it ended abruptly, with the audience not knowing it was done until one performer, in a gesture too natural to be scripted, came out from under a sheet and said “we were going to wait until you were all gone, but I’m getting hot under here”.
The Late Sessions at the Fitz, I know from having worked there, is all about new work getting air time in order to develop further. So, to conclude this woefully inadequate reflection on Another Species Entirely, my suggestions are that 1) someone needs to put the pineapple down their stockings, everyone I spoke to was waiting for it, and 2) the show needs to be longer, we all thought it was over but we all hoped it wasn’t. I’m gonna stay tuned for the next installment.
Another Species Entirely was only on for two nights. They have another gig coming up at Art and About on October 21. Details on Facebook
TRANSPORT: I had actually been around the WORLD on Sunday. I went on the “Keep it Wheel” bike ride and VegPledge for the 350.org global action day. Keep it Wheel was a well organised bikeride that was basically designed to reassure shop owners that “cyclists are consumers too”, in response to the panicked business owners who instigated class action suit against City of Sydney for damages brought about by its major bike lane project. VegPledge was a picnic in centennial park where we all posed for the camera and didn’t eat meat. Two really cool events. So, I rode from Newtown to Surry Hills to Pyrmont to Centennial Park to Woolloomooloo to Newtown. And, while I won’t describe the route in gory detail, it was easy and fun!
Two women, two raincoats, a bucket, some puddles, the desert and the sea.
The Newtown Theatre is a space that I’ve been to a few times, I like going there (close to home, cool foyer, friendly/unpretentious, unnaturally spongy chairs) but I’ve never liked what I’ve seen there. This is by no means a reflection upon everything that is produced in the space; but of the shamefully few things that I have seen there, I have not been inspired to return in a hurry. Once Under a Sky comes some way to changing my tune about this.
Seasoned physical theatre performers Freya Sant and Kate Sherman, teamed up with director Michael Pigott and devised the work Once Under a Sky. It is a story about two fisherwomen, and this story is told in the time it takes to find a good fishing spot. But it is much more than that. It is a personal history. It is a story of two outsiders. It is a story about co-dependence and love, in ways similar to A Tiny Chorus. It is dream-like: space and time seem stable, but are not. In all this, Once Under a Sky has the potential to be an amazing adventure. But, I don’t think it is a finished work yet.
To reflect honestly upon my experience: this was a Fringe production, and I really felt the limitations of the Fringe format when I saw this show. Some performances are like Tents, easy to put up and down, ideal for the Fringe. Others are not. I think Once Under a Sky looks like a Tent but, to extend this terrible analogy, it is actually more like a Kit Home: more difficult to construct and more permanent than you might think. I’m sure the performers are aware of this. It is a simple story, but I wanted less simple lighting. Also, I was not sure if there needed to be a set, but I am also not sure if the space should be black. I wished the sound provided more of something … but it’s not really my place to suggest what that “something” is. But if I was in the business of suggesting, I would say I also loved the points at which action would be paused and a narrator would come and describe the history, especially when it placed these two girls/women in a more concrete social context. But this didn’t happen very often. I felt the overall story could benefit from a more carefully constructed metanarrative. In short, I wanted more from this world under the sky than this particular incarnation of Once Under a Sky could give me.
Having said this, it was amazing how much of the story did actually work in the Fringe (as a Tent!) without all the benefits of a full production (a Kit Home). The performers really know how to infuse a blank space with meaning. They played absurdly with scale (who knew a spit ball and the sea could have the same function?), they created remarkably labour-intensive props for single moments (a person-sized, presumably hand-knitted, bag!), and created a meaningful and complex relationship between the two characters who at times seemed almost like strangers and at other times the seemed almost like lovers. In short: if the Fringe Production was designed as a tester to see if it should be developed further, I’d say the answer to that is unequivocally “yes”.
TRANSPORT: I live shamefully close to The Newtown Theatre, relative to the amount of times i’ve attended the space. Basically, I rode to The Hub. 30 seconds from my house. And rode down King St for about 1.5 minutes. Stopping at the Pastizzi Cafe for Pastizzi (don’t forget to order their special tomato sauce with your Pastizzi) for 5 minutes. Then rode on to the Newtown Theatre. 1 minute. The journey from door to door, including an eat-in-dinner 8 minutes. As I have never said before, but I will say it again, two wheels are much better than none.
A Tiny Chorus is an example of how, in the right hands, a series of simple drama games can be linked together in a simple, meaningful sequence (a narrative) in order to produce a beautiful story. Generally it takes me much longer to get to the point of a review. But this one, I don’t need to. Also, I don’t want to, because the subtle element of surprise is key to one’s experience of A Tiny Chorus. Any more praise it might look like I was being paid off by a canny producer, any more description might spoil the experience. I will add, however, that there is a good reason why it won an audience award at Melbourne Fringe, and good reason why it was nominated for several awards in Adelaide. I think there is a good reason why it was part of a special select program for the Sydney Fringe. Herein lies the point: there are many good reasons to go and see A Tiny Chorus.
A Tiny Chorus plays until September 25 at CarriageWorks. This is a review of the performance on Thursday 16th September, 2010.
TRANSPORT: I walked in the wind from Bedford St, down Wilson St, to CarriageWorks. I walked with my mother. We went to see A Tiny Chorus on the first anniversary of my father’s death.
A middle class English interior, with English armchairs. An English evening. Mr Smith, an Englishman, seated in his English armchair and wearing English slippers, is smoking his English pipe and reading an English newspaper, near an English fire. He is wearing English spectacles and a small gray English mustache. Beside him, in another English armchair, Mrs. Smith, an Englishwoman, is darning some English socks. A long moment of English silence. the English clock strikes 17 English strokes. – Opening stage directions of The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco
On the 8th September I saw Ionesco’s first play, The Bald Soprano (AKA The Bald Primadonna, AKA La Cantarice Chauve) – An Antiplay, en Francais, at Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. There is some irony, surely, in an Anglo-Australian Shakespeare scholar seeing a play in French, that is effectively a clever parody of both the English theatre, in form, and of English relationships, in content. Sitting in the small theatre space, with my perfectly Colonial manners, ready to enjoy a polite evening at the theatre only to have my Colonial heritage and scholarly pursuits entirely undermined in a foreign tongue. But, it was fun!
While I planned to attend the play, I didn’t work out until many hours afterwards, in the airport of a sub-fascist state, exactly what I had attended. I spent the hour beforehand reading the English version of the play in the bookstore around the corner. But I didn’t comprehend that this production of the play was the original production, and that this production had been playing consistently since 1957. It was not until I checked the internet at Changi airport two days later that I found out what I had seen.
I reckon I was given three opportunities to properly comprehend what I was seeing. Firstly, at the bookstore one of the ladies mentioned something vaguely about how these plays had been on for years but, because she had not been to the theatre to see the plays herself, the details were very fuzzy. Secondly, I noticed out the front of the theatre that it said ’53 ANS’ in big letters (see picture above). I know that ‘ans’ is ‘years’ in French. But I thought that it was more than likely that these plays were written that long ago, and from this I deduced that French tradition was to let everyone know the vintage of the playtext on the sign outside the theatre. For all I knew the production of Une Tempete opening in Paris the night after I left may have had ‘399 ANS’ up on a sign outside the theatre. But, no, I didn’t actually ask anyone to verify anything. I just assumed my completely bogus thoughts were completely right. Oddly, the set itself, which is still the same as it was in the original production back in 1957, didn’t do anything to confirm or deny my vague impression of what I was actually seeing. The old-fashionedness of the aesthetic* probably gave me a third opportunity to connect the dots between what I thought I was doing and what I was actually doing. But, I failed. I continued to be a vague tourist, placing all my trust in Paris, believing it would be just intelligible enough to navigate without the need of any real effort on my part. Which it was, sort of. I sort of got it. I sort of got around. I sort of understood the play, and partially understood the kind of experience I was having.
Regardless of my back-to-front understanding of what I did, if you go to Paris, I highly recommend going to the bookstore, reading the play, and then popping around the corner to see it en Francais. It’s a fun thing to do, it’s a really, really funny play, and the performances are wonderfully stylised. Furthermore, the modest 85-seat theatre provides a drastic change from the monumental-grand historical-gold plated-stone monoliths that house everything else one might usually see when they spend three days in Paris.
*The set was of a style at home on the stages of a rural NSW production of The Mikado, trompe-l’oeil flats, painted to look like ornate domestic walls. Oh, how I am waiting for a canny designer to bring back trompe-l’oeil backdrops in all their seventeenth century glory.