Not really about Not Like Beckett
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.