Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Not really about Not Like Beckett

Not Like Beckett by Michael Watts. Directed by Michael Kantor. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingly. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Composition and sound design by Darrin Verhagen. Malthouse Theatre, until August 20.



Not Like Beckett?

Not like bloody Hibberd either. More’s the pity.

This show made it four for four. The worst run I’ve had in Melbourne in years. Four shockers. Four shows I would willingly have left... if it had been possible to slip out unnoticed.

First, a disaster from the normally fine Arena company: Skid 180 by Louise Wallwein. Using a play and pro-am cast from Manchester, the Arena team threw everything at a lame piece about underage outsiders and their BMX half-pipe dreams.

The doom-and-gloom script -- angry as a blind pimple -- never quite heads up. Word for word, it’s kinda fun, a slammy mix of Manchester punk-poet-laureate John Cooper Clarke, Geezer-Rapper Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) and Billy Bragg. The youth, here, aren’t disaffected, they’re disinfected.

But the production was as unsubtle as the acting. The amplification of the voices blunt. The sound mix brutal and flat, though the original music and fx were okay. The video projections -- in real estate terms -- were an overcapitalisation. I couldn’t wait to get on my proverbial bike.

The very next night I made my annual pilgrimage to see a production by Melbourne Opera Company... to see if the company is (at long last) living up to the hype it generates and the warm support it enjoys from the local opera establishment; an establishment so desperate for a phoenix to rise from the ashes of the late, lamented -- and often lamentable -- Victoria State Opera.

Had I not been jammed into the middle of a row in the cramped Athenaeum Theatre, I doubt I would have lasted as long as I did. After the thunderous -- and dizzyingly hopeful -- opening chords, I had a terrible urge to stop the performance, to stand and scream at the top of my lungs: TUNE YOUR FUCKING INSTRUMENTS. (For some, in the woodwind section, having a tuned instrument didn’t actually help.) A couple of the singers might usefully have been advised to tune their instruments as well.

Bizarrely, the finale of Don Giovanni was used to preface the first act. Bad move. The finger-pointing “fires of hell” warning -- tutti -- was textbook ham opera, and far and away the worst acting of the first half. Which is where The Don and I parted company.

I’ve got to say that the acting -- finale/prelude aside -- was uncommonly good. Natural and persuasive. And a couple of the voices were good. Roger Howell, of course, as Leporello. Vanessa West’s Donna Anna was outstanding. She was physically committed to the part, too. But, musically, man... this Don was a Dog.

In the unlikely event that the Melbourne Opera Company had tendered successfully for the state funding crown, the best thing that could have been granted MOC would have been a real orchestra and a real theatre. Basic infrastructure.

That said, the younger, smaller Lyric Opera of Melbourne gives a far greater bang for the buck. A little over a year ago, Lyric mounted a production of Handel’s Orlando.

With an orchestra not much bigger than a string quartet, and five voices, the company reminded us that chamber music wasn’t meant for vast concert halls and opera houses, it was meant for chambers. The tiny Assembly Hall proved perfect for Handel. Its delightful, surround-sound acoustic is clear and warm; and remarkably even.

At the performance I attended, there were some bad-tempered problems between the cello and harpsichord, and a few unforced errors after interval, but the band was otherwise impressive.

It might sound like an oxymoron, but Lyric appeared to be providing a classical opera fringe: a genuine alternative to the blockbuster mainstage operas. With some scrims, a few chairs and some inventive lighting, the company transformed a bare concert platform into a place of theatrical magic.

In the next circle of hell was Complexions Contemporary Ballet, damned elsewhere, a company that still trades on its faded connections with the Alvin Ailey company.

Now, I happen to believe that dance is the performing art that reminds us why we have performing arts, but the Complexions show was so vacuous, so banal, that I feared that any newbie would look in and think: “Hmm, maybe dance isn’t for me.”

But I did stay to the end.

Bully for me.

Then Not Like Beckett. In the Beckett Theatre, appositely. (Named in honour of local designer John Beckett, dear reader, not Samuel.)

As a critic, I’ve seen literally thousands of shows. I know I clocked up an even thousand in four years in the mid ’90s. The more you eat, paradoxically, the better it gets -- if I can misquote a line from Godot -- the more tolerant of failure one gets. Even at the cinema, I piss my friends off by staying to the very end of the credits.

But, with Not Like Beckett, staying just wasn’t an option. Even if it was a mere 80 minutes, no interval. While I bided my time, I added a new answer to my on-going “why do we tell stories?” challenge. Bluster. Like some Douglas Adams joke -- I’m thinking of the telepathic alien species which developed inane smalltalk to head-off any unchecked thoughts -- Michael Watts’s play shores words against ruin. But the words are the ruin. The words are a Trojan Horse for La Nausée.
“The thing which was waiting was on the alert, it has pounced on me, it flows through me, I am filled with it. It’s nothing: I am the Thing. Existence, liberated, detached, floods over me. I exist.”
For the first time in my life, I climbed over people to get out of a theatre. Climbed? I almost fell over people to get out. The Beckett has seats that tilt forward when unoccupied, allowing for easier access to what might otherwise be a cramped space. (Depending on configuration, the theatre seats up to 198 people on two levels.)

Yes, out of courtesy to the hard-working actor, Russell Dykstra, I waited until I was out of eye-shot... then I fled. I had lasted barely 30 minutes. But I had been quietly gathering my possessions in anticipation.

A week’s a long time in politics, they say. But an hour trapped in a theatre can be eternal damnation. I went and slammed some slushy margaritas instead, figuring a cricket-bat hangover was far far better than faux-fur Beckett.



Skid 180 by Louise Wallwein. Directed by Rosemary Myers. Staging devised by Pete Brundle, Graham Clayton-Chance and Rosemary Myers. Video design by Pete Brundle and Graham Clayton-Chance. Stage and costume design by Vanessa Hawkins, lighting design by Mark Distin. Original composition and sound design by Hugh Covill with additional music by the Daywalkers. Choreographed by Luke George. North Melbourne Town Hall.


Don Giovanni by Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Directed and choreographed by Hugh Halliday, designed by Richard Jeziorny, lighting design by Nick Merrylees, costumes by Malcolm Cumberbatch. Conducted by Greg Hocking. Melbourne Opera Company. Athenaeum Theatre.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Abe Pogos said...

You poor baby.

What a horrendous time you’ve been having. Having to go to the opera and the ballet and the theatre and having to endure such torment. Oh the horror the horror! And I thought those poor souls in the Middle East were having it rough. They should get on to your blog and gain a little perspective. Maybe they could stage a benefit concert (Boyd Aid? Get the remaining Go Between to sing?) so we can ship you around the world to see some half decent shows.

To be serious for a moment I want to raise a question about the responsibility of a critic. You say you walked out of "Not Like Beckett" after thirty minutes in what was an eighty minute show. Having missed most of the show do you think it's appropriate to write anything about it?

I have a problem with critics who damn things they haven't seen and your walk out is in effect a condemnation of the fifty minutes you missed. While I admit I’ve seen hundreds of shows over the years and I can’t remember one that was dreadful in the first half hour get significantly better, I think a critic has a different responsibility.

I also accept that blogs are a different animal and I’m assuming if you were being employed by a major daily to review the show then you wouldn’t have walked out, but I still raise the question.

(Were your tickets free by the way, when you were climbing over patrons who presumably paid? Surely they suffered more?)

7:58 AM  
Blogger E. Hunter Spreen said...

Maybe it's because I sat through a two hour (no intermission) slogfest last Friday that I found your review delightful. I appreciated the honesty. I have no problem walking out of a show, but in my case it wasn't an option. One of our critics in the US (George Jean Nathan) claimed it was the right of the critic to walk out after the first act - so seems to me you fulfilled your duty. I read Alison Croggon's review of Not Like Beckett, so you would think that if I were geographically capable, I could weigh the two against each other and decide on my own whether I felt it was worth the risk.

4:02 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

If you think theatrical bombs in Melbourne aren't every bit as important as the laser-guided bombs falling on Lebanon (or the Katyusha and Ra'ad missiles lobbing on northern Israel) then you probably shouldn't be a playwright, Abe. 'Making' is one of the most important things the human animal does. Far more important than making war and making love.

Hmm. Withering humour doesn't work at all well in a weblog environment does it? Your humour or mine.

So let me quote something Athol Fugard told me in January: "the written word, the spoken word, are effective forms of action... every bit as significant -- every bit as potent in terms of consequences -- as any bomb that could be placed anywhere."

Words are not to be wasted. Nor is time.

To respond to your specific questions, I have never walked out of a show I was employed to review. I have once -- and only once -- gone into print about a show I left at interval, but only to say that I couldn't stand it. It was in a festival report covering more than one show. About a decade and a half ago.

Famously, my successor at The Age, 'Wise Guy' Guy Rundle, reviewed a show for The Aged -- at the Beckett Theatre in fact -- after leaving at interval. He had a copy of the script and reviewed the second half from that.

Incidentally, I do not regard my 'purge', above, as a review. Hell, I didn't even attempt to finger what annoyed me about Not Like Beckett. (It was a plague of words as antipathetic to my aesthetic soul as rabbits -- make that cane toads -- are to indigenous flora and fauna... howzat?)

Yes, my ticket was free. But I am far more likely to walk out of a show I have paid to see.

Did I inconvenience paying patrons? Yes and no. Maybe I just led the charge. Maybe their individual revulsions were validated.

Actually, the one I almost fell on, made no attempt to get out of my way. He took no evasive action whatsoever. Serves 'im right, I say!

I once stayed to the end of a performance on Broadway -- Burn This from memory -- so that I could boo John Malkovich for one of the laziest performances I had ever seen. (I've got a title for the movie: Booing John Malkovich!)

My vigorous booing (with a deliberate Australian twang, more of a 'bo' really!) turned a tepid audience response into a standing ovation. Go figure.

Having sat next to the Ruskins while they audibly hated every moment of a dance performance, also in the Beckett Theatre as it happens, I would have been grateful for them to have stormed out -- and left me to my enjoyment -- rather than to radiate loathing for an hour and interfere with it.

In my other capacity as a literary editor, where it is a requirement that I be a serial book starter... deciding if a book is worth passing on to a reviewer, I tried (as an exercise) to finish the books I had tossed aside in disgust after 100 pages.

With few exceptions, they all got better. But only marginally. If we were to rate the improvement out of five, they would have only scored an extra half-star, tops.

Hunter, thanks for your, er, moral support! :) [I typed 'mortal' support, twice!]

I'm flabbergasted that George Jean Nathan should claim it's okay to bolt tho. Then again, in the US, the critics have theatre producers so spooked that a dissing can close a show in days. (Perhaps it's the only revenge left to the writer: torturing the critic!)

Here, reviews speed up (or slow down as the case may be) the public reception of a show... good, bad or ugly. No more, no less.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

I remember the music critic of the Herald was sacked when he reviewed a show that he snored through very audibly (he had a problem with alcohol). There's obviously a problem with that.

I let fly on the blog at the John Bell R&J after walking out an interval. Had I decided to review it (I didn't have review tickets) I would have been obliged to stay. Chris wasn't reviewing. I don't see a problem with his saying, I couldn't stand it so I left...

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Abe Pogos said...

"Chris wasn't reviewing. I don't see a problem with his saying, I couldn't stand it so I left..."

Alison, I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view and I suggested in my original post that the rules for theatre bloggers who freely devote their time and effort to discourse on the arts needn't be the same as those for reviewers who are being paid by a major daily.

My disagreement here is philosophical rather than ethical. If I were a critic and I thought a show wasn't worth reviewing, I wouldn't say anything about it. If I felt compelled to put something in print, even a one line dismissal, then I'd feel compelled to see all of it. If you or Chris say that you dislike something so much that you're not going to review it, it's still perceived by most readers—and certainly by the artists involved—as a judgement on the piece, and one that in most cases is far more potent than a thousand word review.

I appreciate the fact that in the case of Romeo and Juliet you placed your walkout in the context of having seen a number of Bell Shakespeare productions over the years so you wrote what was an overview of the company, but I still wouldve toughed it out (maybe I'm just a masochist).

And Chris, my original post was meant as a gentle dig. It didn't seem withering to me at all but perhaps as you suggest, tone gets lost a little over the web. I thought the "Boyd Aid" joke was thigh slappingly funny but there you go.

I suppose whether we find humour funny or not depends on who is the butt of the joke. I guess I didn't find your original post all that amusing because I'd have hated to be the writer having their work dismissed like that. Perhaps we all take ourselves a little too seriously?

11:29 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

I was dragged out of the opera Batavia at interval by my embarrassed husband because I was standing up and booing. (Admittedly, I confined my comments afterwards to my bored friends, I didn't have a blog then).

Those who feel passionately about theatre are sometimes going to have passionately negative responses. I've been on the wrong end of them myself - I remember the critical responses to Gauguin, when Michael and I were totally skewered... aside from an afternoon's sulking, I don't have a problem with that. And strong reactions to works on stage sometimes do involve such a basic physical response as removing oneself (or being removed). In an ideal world, those strong reactions form the rough material for an interesting discussion. That how we hammer out what we think matters. And again in an ideal world, there will be a wide variety of views on what is thought to matter.

What I can't stand is indifference, those who write about the theatre without any discernable love for it. That's the real killer.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

If I were a critic and I thought a show wasn't worth reviewing, I wouldn't say anything about it. If I felt compelled to put something in print, even a one line dismissal, then I'd feel compelled to see all of it. If you or Chris say that you dislike something so much that you're not going to review it, it's still perceived by most readers—and certainly by the artists involved—as a judgement on the piece, and one that in most cases is far more potent than a thousand word review.

You know, Abe, I'm inclined to agree with you... as pompous as that sounds. And I can hardly plead "but this is just a blog" when I'm hell-bent on doing something (like Alison) which is not in any way conventionally bloggy.

Having said that, what I wrote about Not Like Beckett wasn't my usual "post-emotional response". It was about the experience of staying and the relief of leaving.

And, mercy, it fell a long way short of Mr Woodhead's "nuke the bastards" damnation of another play in The Aged . See Ben Ellis's blog, Parachute of a Playwright, for more on that.

http://parachuteofaplaywright.blogspot.com

(You may have to cut and paste that into your browser, I'm not sure it will directly link.)

And Alison, I wish I had been privvy to your thoughts/reaction to Batavia ! It was an opera conceived and delivered without much dramaturgical intervention, alas. (David Freeman was originally engaged to direct it, but he might well have been too much, too late!)

Batavia opens in Sydney, finally, this week. On Saturday. Five years after its Melbourne premiere. (I also saw it in the handsome, but relatively cramped, His Majesty's Theatre in Perth a coupla years ago.)

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Abe Pogos said...

"...strong reactions to works on stage sometimes do involve such a basic physical response as removing oneself (or being removed). In an ideal world, those strong reactions form the rough material for an interesting discussion. That how we hammer out what we think matters..."

Alison, I'm all for interesting discussion. There was an opportunity here for two blog heavyweights with wildly differing responses to the same show to hammer out what they think matters in theatre. Instead what was being hammered out (and I guess I started the ball rolling in that direction) was whether a critic should write anything about a show they left early. Of course Chris has the right to walk out and that's as perfectly valid a subject to write about as any. I just think it would've been more interesting to see you guys thrash out your disagreement in searching detail (way beyond those polite exchanges recently posted on Theatrenotes) but that couldn’t happen because one of you saw less than half the show.

Incidentally Chris, I had considered mentioning the Guy Rundle affair in my initial post, simply to make it clear that I didn’t consider what you did was at all in the same ballpark. He crossed the line in terms of journalistic ethics and wrote a review that, while favourable, was plainly deceitful as it gave the impression he’d seen the whole show. I thought he should’ve been sacked. Also, the play he was reviewing (I think it was The Dinner Party by Peter Sichrovsky) had different endings which alternated from night to night. This meant he had to be careful about his choice of words as—despite having a copy of the script—he wouldn’t have known which ending he didn't see on that particular night.

p.s. Alison, I've known you for nearly twenty years and I've never heard you raise your voice let alone boo. I would've gladly paid opera priced tickets to see that.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

I don't think this is The One to battle it out over, Abe. It's just not substantial enough.

It's easy to stand your ground and fight the good fight when you're defending a Mapplethorpe, it's a lot harder to do it over a Serrano. You know?

Not Like Beckett had one brilliant idea: to liken non-Aboriginal Australians to a plague of rabbits. But it failed to get beyond its desire to make that point.

At the risk of sounding like a Big Brother inmate (I mean housemate) in The Diary Room, that frustrated me. I mean frush-trated me.

I was also bored rigid and found it profoundly unfunny.

I was intrigued to read that Alison didn't know what was gonna happen next, but I (felt that I) knew it with some certainty. (And from various accounts/reviews I've read since, I felt vindicated on that point, at least.)

I'm not going to apologise for our politeness... it's not gonna be a wonderfully entertaining bitchfest like we have happening at the moment between David Eldridge and his secret 'admirer' (NOT!) blogging their way around London...

And, hell, Alison and I didn't even see the same performance. I reckon it's highly likely I saw the worst show of the run. Another reason not to start a slugfest.

One final point, and forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, a completely different set of rules and criteria apply to different kinds of performances. It is easier to understand/excuse a punter leaving an opera at any point. The damage is done and irreparable. Half (or a third) of the thing is already buggered.

I once left a Tristan & Isolde at first interval!! I did briefly consider coming back for the opening of the third act for the massig langsam, but it was too too awful.

In opera, dud production values are tolerable, dud musicianship (in or out of the pit) is not.

Good dancers doing bad choreography is a tricky one. Perhaps comparable to good orchestras doing bad compositions... (Why should I immediately think of the ACO performing a syrupy orchestrated version of an astringent string quartet?)

As for Boyd Aid... I once had an editor who urged me to write a column called Boyd's 'Roids... he thought it pants-wettingly funny. An otherwise erudite man blessed with uncommonly good taste. Miranda said it: Good wombs have borne bad sons.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

As I recall Chris, I loathed everything about Batavia except Dan Potra's design - maybe if they cut the entire first act, they might have a bit of drama. Terrible libretto - it was as if Shakespeare had decided to begin The Tempest in Naples with everyone packing the ship - and a score which sounded like the 20th century hadn't happened...

I kind of agree with Chris, in that there's not much to argue about with NLB. My response is up there, and I'd probably just be repeating myself. I still think the upfront "I loathed it" thing is a valid response: here Chris used it to jump off into some other kind of discussion. The only real problem I can think of is if the walkout pretends to be something else - eg, a review of an entire show that wasn't actually seen.

2:35 PM  

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