Sunday, February 26, 2006

An interview with Opera Factory director David Freeman

Why hold an antique hand-mirror up to nature when one can just as easily hold a mobile phone with an integrated digital camera up to it, and get immediate and lasting gratification? With the added bonus of being able to delete the really ugly shots? According to David Freeman: “the nature of our lives has changed, and the theatre is unfortunately in a bit of a time warp, looking at the past.”

Freeman,
founder of the Opera Factory companies in Zurich and London, is home in Sydney to direct a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Opera Australia. The production also uses physical theatre company Legs On The Wall. This is an edit of a recent interview.


[David Freeman:] Theatre policy, in effect, is based on museum policy. There’s a direct line in London, for instance, between the founding of the British Museum in 1762 and the opening of the National Theatre [of Great Britain] in about 1975. They are the same sort of thing. They are there to present the jewels of collectible culture.

[CHRIS BOYD:] PRESENT AND PRESERVE.

Yes. It’s conservative in a wonderful sense. But it is very hard to make these theatres as alive as theatre once was. Theatre is a very old fashioned business. But then on the other hand, so are we! Human beings haven’t really changed much in an extraordinarily long period of time.

AND THEATRE IS, SORT OF, WHAT WE DO...

Theatre is what we do. I remember Phil Glass saying to me once: well, the thing about your theatre, David, is that acting's really important. I said to him, look Phil, I don’t think of acting as a part of theatre. I think of theatre as a part of acting. Theatre is one way of looking at acting. Theatre is about behaviour, which is what acting is. And unless you can analyse and create behaviour in very very complex ways, theatre always remains a little bit dull.

[...]

It seems to me that in theatre today, people think that modernism is changing the sets and the costumes, which people have always done. Shakespeare didn’t do historically accurate versions of ancient Rome. Guys came on in Elizabethan dress!

It’s almost like, you’ve got a very very tired salad, you keep throwing more salad dressing at it. When what you really need are new leaves. I think the theatre needs new leaves, in that sense.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted the most exciting version of a Beethoven Symphony I’ve ever heard live. It was just so radical! And you have to say when a piece of music is radical, it’s essence remains radical. And the same goes with a piece of theatre.

RADICAL POLITICALLY?

No, I’m not interested in radical politically. I’m interested in radical spiritually.

I DON’T ACCEPT THERE’S A DISTINCTION NECESSARILY --

[Politics] is how we interact with each other. And until you can deal with how you interact with yourself, you can’t really get very far with each other. Therefore politics is full of people like Lenin who love humanity and hate people.

The problem spiritually of course is that we have tossed out religion -- I think absolutely rightly -- because one person’s religion is one person’s voodoo as far as I am concerned...

BUT HAVEN’T WE REPLACED RELIGION PRECISELY WITH “NEW AGE” VOODOO?

Well, no. Most people don’t do anything. We’ve basically replaced it with consumerism. The trouble with that is it doesn’t work! You always want more.

[...]

Fantasy’s great, but there is no vulnerability in fantasy unless it’s revealed to other people. But that’s the trouble with fantasy.

My point is this. We edit the past.

Fantasy is not only a projection in the future. The memory is almost -- it is in a sense -- a fantasy. It’s a composite of things that have happened. Fantasy is one of our ways of responding to reality. In fact, it’s arguably what we do with reality all the time.

REFINING IT? OR EDITING IT? OR “NARRATIVISING” IT? --

Telling a story. Turning it into story. Yeah, absolutely.

As actors, we all talk about wanting to live in the present, but in a way it’s impossible, because every moment is just going.

Charles Marowitz -- who I worked for at one point -- published a book called The Art of Being. [N.B. The book’s title is, in fact, The Act of Being: Towards a Theory of Acting.]

I think, on the contrary, it’s the art of becoming. You can’t be... unless you’re in a permanent state of near-Nirvana Buddhism, meditating. But that, on the other hand, leads to tremendous passivity and acceptance of suffering in life which I think we also need to address.

Rather than we in the West thinking: ah, the East has all the answers, [we need to] take the fantastic focus of the West and marry it to the tremendous breadth of the East.

I don’t think either [East or West] has the truth, but when people are disaffected with the West they sometime imagine that all the truth is in the East. I don’t think so. It doesn’t make sense.

MORE ORIENTALISM! YOU WERE GOING TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT AN AUDIENCE...

One of the things an audience manages, in theatre, when it’s good, when they’re not just bored or patting themselves on the back for just being there and understanding Shakespeare’s jokes, or something like that --

DON’T GET ME STARTED!

Yes, it’s very depressing! It’s the [opportunity] to be part of a community -- the community of that audience on that night -- and also to retain your individuality.

I suppose I’m deeply suspicious of crowds. Canetti’s Crowds and Power is quite apposite. Really, when an awful lot of people -- tens and tens and tens of thousands -- are just screaming at a sporting event, there is a relationship to the Nuremberg rallies which none of us wishes to admit. The Nuremberg rallies maybe be a perversion of purpose, but it is the same. The loss of individuality in the crowd is what makes everybody feel empowered. But you’ve got to be skeptical. God stands up for skeptics rather than bastards!

[...]

We live in a culture which is based upon obedience unfortunately, particularly in [classical] music, but to a certain extent theatre too.

BALLET’S EVEN WORSE...

There is some stuff that isn’t like that, of course. But there’s not that much. If you wanted to go to the theatre of Dionysus today, you wouldn’t go to the theatre, you might go to a pop concert, you’d probably be disappointed.

MIGHT GO TO PHYSICAL THEATRE OR CIRCUS OR MAYBE DANCE?

Maybe dance. I have yet to see the piece of physical theatre which had the intellectual backbone and behavioural subtlety to really do all of that.

WHAT ABOUT DV8 AT IT’S BEST?

DV8’s fantastic... But we can both name a number of groups around the world...

OR A NUMBER OF PIECES BY ONE GROUP -- I MEAN ONE PIECE BY EACH OF A NUMBER OF GROUPS...

Absolutely. It’s that rare. And it’s not on the menu of most theatres. And that is a great great shame. It’s not striven for.

[Vulnerability] is what physical theatre tends to lack. Most strippers wear their skin like armour.

Vulnerability is about allowing. Vulnerability is about what you let in. It’s not about what you control. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what you receive.

And that, of course, is the most terrifying thing for a performer because everybody wants control. Everybody wants to feel: this is my job and I’m doing it very well. It’s called professionalism. It’s the death of theatre in that particular definition!

I WAS GOING TO MENTION KAREN FINLEY, BUT I THINK THE PERFECT EXAMPLE OF WHAT YOU’RE JUST DESCRIBING IS MADONNA ON ONE HAND AND SINEAD O’CONNOR ON THE OTHER... SINEAD RIPPING UP THE PICTURE OF THE POPE... A STRIKING MISCALCULATION. ONE MADONNA WOULD NEVER HAVE MADE. INCREDIBLY NAIVE AND HONEST!

I agree with that. But I also think Madonna has taken big risks and she’s brought them off.


WHY DO YOU DO OPERA? DANCE IS THE PERFORMING ART THAT REMINDS ME WHY WE HAVE PERFORMING ARTS.

You must understand I didn’t do opera. I created two opera companies -- things that I called opera companies -- who also did things like -- who did a lot of television. I had as much rehearsal as I felt I needed. I worked with the same people in London, particularly, over fifteen years.

They were great actors like Marie Angel, my wife. I mean she’s a great actress as well as a wonderful singer. A truly staggering actress. And she has also tended not to fit into the system. Of course I’ve done a few big operas. And I’ve even brought a few of them off. Mostly at English National Opera, I must admit. But some of the Albert Hall stuff has worked. Eventually you get to the point where you do know how to do the job and you can, if you get the right performers. It’s surprising what you can achieve.

[...]

DO YOU HAVE THE SAME KIND OF LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH OPERA THAT I HAVE? IT’S THE ONLY ART FORM THAT ROUTINELY TACKLES LOVE & DEATH, SEX & DRUGS... AND THAT’S JUST TRISTAN UND ISOLDE! AND YET...

I don’t do those operas and I don’t go to them either!

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH CHORUSES THAT ARE RELUCTANT TO ACT OR MOVE?

By and large, I just didn’t deal with choruses, or I got individuals to be choruses. I did Orfeo with John Eliot Gardiner twentysomething years ago with the Coliseum. And I choreographed the whole thing myself. I got 21 soloists, chorus made up of John Tomlinson, Diana Montague. I mean, it was like a Who’s Who, eventually, of English opera. Della Jones, Nigel Watson, Chris Robson, Laurence Dale, Anthony Rolfe Johnson. I had a chorus made up of those people! And I had five and a half weeks rehearsal. And half the cast for two weeks, improvising. And the other half improvising for another two weeks. They gave me ten weeks to do it. And I got somewhere that you don’t get very [often].

I had people hanging around a rock for 25 minutes going through slow-motion death agonies of Dante. And that’s very hard physical work.

SOUNDS A BIT LIKE BERKOFF!

I don’t know. I think it probably isn’t [like Berkoff].

I’M THINKING OF THE SLOW-MOTION SUICIDE BY NARRABOTH IN SALOME...

Well if you can imagine 20 people twitching whilst Orfeo sings “orsente spiritu?” but in English, in a wonderful translation...

And, of course, one of the other madnesses of opera is that people don’t want to understand the words. Because it is now done so often, where neither the performers nor the audience really speak the language in any fluent way... it’s unfortunate and becoming a sort of a well-and-truly exotic activity.

But, I mean, Opera Factory did plays. We did Ghost Sonata of Strindberg. But I did the Aribert Reimann opera and the Strindberg play on alternate nights. With the same cast of singers and actors... so you just flipped it from one night to the next...

IS THIS THE LAST GENERATION OF THEATRE? ARE WE REACHING ANOTHER CUSP BECAUSE OF TELEVISION? IS IT A DYING ART?

Well, everybody says that. I think that, to be realistic, we’d all like boring theatre to die out. I don’t think it will!

I think that there is always going to be a small percentage of the population that wants to see almost illustrated versions of great dramatic literary texts.

CERTAINLY IN AUSTRALIA...

But that’s okay. I’m very fascinated with pop music. I think there’s a symbiosis between pop music and theatre, it would be very interesting trying to bridge. The average age in many many theatres -- in subsidised theatres -- is around sixty. Trevor Nunn told me that about the National Theatre a few years ago, although they’ve got it down.

So many pop stars [are] complaining that their work isn’t heard by anybody over the age of 12! So I feel that one could fruitfully bring those things together!

[...]

Theatre doesn’t engage with pop music at all seriously... You need pop composers who can do more than a three minute song; you need bigger structures in theatre, of course, at times, and just a wider range than one or two sorts of songs. An awful lot of pop musicians have sort of a fast song and a slow song, they can be very nice, they don’t have a great variety...

I RECKON THE SOUTH PARK MOVIE, BIGGER LONGER UNCUT, IS ONE OF THE GREAT ORTHODOX MUSICALS WRITTEN IN THE LAST FEW DECADES.

Everybody knocks Lloyd Webber... I think Superstar’s still probably his best piece. I think that when he was of his time, [he] interested me more, but he stopped being so. But, I must say, he is rather brave in the sort of pieces that he tries. The Beautiful Game was an extraordinary idea. And it didn’t entirely work. You know with the big broad populist brush strokes I was quite excited. But everybody poo-poos it... There are things to knock of course, but it’s too easy to only knock. To throw the baby with the bathwater and to criticise everything rather than differentiate...

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

MUMMENSCHANZ: “3 x 11”

Mummenschanz: 3x11 -- a 33 year retrospective. February 21, 2006, at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Season ends March 4. Then various dates in New Zealand (Christchurch, Blenheim, Palmerston North, Napier, Tauranga, Rotorua and Auckland). A South American tour begins on April 14 at the Iberoamerican Theatre Festival in Bogotá, Colombia. A Swiss tour will follow, beginning in Mézières and ending in Zurich in the northern spring of 2007.

Silence in the theatre never fails to surprise me. It’s as rare as a complete black-out.

I don’t mean the self-conscious hush that descends when an audience senses “the Ceremony is about to begin.” Nor the reflexive coughing you get when an orchestra suddenly plays softly. (Have you noticed, by the way, that audiences cough and splutter whenever there’s smoke on stage? No matter how far away or non-toxic it might be... dry ice -- even steam -- will start ’em off!) Nor do I mean the rare, mystical silence that you get in the pause between the end of a great performance and the start of applause.

I mean a kind of relentless, churchy silence. It’s like being at a cinema where the film has begun but the soundtrack is suspiciously absent. It’s not so much a mass nervousness as a questioning: has something gone wrong?

“Keeping mum” is what Mummenschanz does. They use no sound effects, no music. Along with malleable masks, simple story telling and the playful use of domestic objects and fabrics, silence has been a signature trait of Mummenschanz shows since the company quietly stormed the stage at the 1972 Avignon Festival.

The company's newest opus (which had its world premiere in Sydney last month) is, in fact, is a sampler of the most famed and delightful pieces in the Mummenschanz repertoire. As far as I could tell, the one glaring change was a marked increase in lighting levels! (Either the company is keen to reveal its technique -- for us to revel in -- or the ageing performers needed to ratchet up the brightness up a notch to make their way around the stage!)



This is, reportedly, the first visit to Australia by the surviving founders of the visual theatre company: Bernie Schürch (who would have to be in his mid 60s) and the Italian-American Floriana Frassetto. Schürch’s Swiss compatriot Andres Bossard died in 1992.

For this season, old-timers Schürch and Frassetto are joined by Jakob Bentsen and Raffaella Mattioli. The grizzled team is a wonderful manifestation of the expression “young at heart”. They’re amazingly lithe. And, despite their age, their wit is pure child’s play. Not surprisingly, it’s sometimes naughty. A prime example is the decades-old electric plug-and-socket routine in which a two-pronged male mask kisses (or, rather, mates with) a dual-holed female mask! The whole thing, from go to whoa, is barely 30 seconds, complete with light-sizzling climax.

Despite the fact that this particular Exhibition Street theatre -- like all the “upper east side” commercial theatres in Melbourne -- pulls the kind of audiences that prefer to undress in the dark, audiences “get” Mummenschanz. It’s uncanny. Irrespective of age, interests, exposure to clowning, puppetry or mask theatre, audiences understand it intuitively.

Within minutes of the curtain being drawn open by a pair of huge white hands (which then clasped one another, counted audience members pointedly and then twiddled digits) folks were “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing”, tittering and glossing the action aloud. Quite unselfconsciously. Indeed, the audience reaction became a source of entertainment in itself... just as a child’s laugh can be for adults. It’s an intriguing, paradoxical state: we’re conscious of our reactions while we’re reacting unselfconsciously. Only a child could understand that. Or a circus audience.

We urged on a walnut-like bag o’ beans in its quest to mount a platform. We sighed with relief and delight (as if we had witnessed the happy ending of a romantic comedy full of longing and desire!) when a tall pair of walking window panes found their rightful place between the thighs of a pair of white shutters! We shrieked with laughter and recognition when a massive blobby organ -- a hungry heart perhaps -- suddenly pulled a crinkled, ecstatic, smiley face.

We watched, in awe, as a plain piece of fabric -- like a large sheet of paper (picture, left) -- turned into a face worthy of Picasso... or worthy of the people who carved the statues on Easter Island!

We sat, slack-jawed, as twirled ribbons turned into profiles, and coloured pipe-cleaner tubes turned into growling animals. We delighted in not knowing which end of a giant worm was head and which was tail as it cartwheeled in slow motion like one of those giant spring things spilling down some stairs.

Some of the very best routines in this show are, in fact, amongst the oldest in the company’s repertoire. Two performers appear wearing masks which hold six rolls of toilet paper apiece. One for talking sh*t, two for balling ones eyes out with, two for hair trailing in the wind...

Another male-female couple has tear-off pads where their mouths and eyes should be; this is another signature work for the company. And it’s still convulsively funny, like seeing a perfect Bugs Bunny cartoon for the very first time.

Mummenschanz, roughly, translates as masquerade. But the company is less about charade than it is about transformation and malleability. Squabbling friends turn into bull and bullfighter, like something out of Ovid. Mad rivals become screwy compadres.

It’s magic. It’s play. It’s real-life claymation.

And it’s bloody marvelous.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Athol Fugard on ‘Tsotsi’, truth and reconciliation, Camus, Pascal and “courageous pessimism”...

An edited interview with South African playwright Athol Fugard (in San Diego) on the publication of his only novel Tsotsi in Australia, January 29, 2006.


[CHRIS BOYD:] TSOTSI IS ABOUT TO BE PUBLISHED IN AUSTRALIA -- FOR THE FIRST TIME -- WITH THE FILM TO FOLLOW IN APRIL. WHY IS THERE NO OTHER PROSE FICTION?


[Athol Fugard:] I wrote Tsotsi at the same time that I was writing the first of my plays to really receive recognition within South Africa, and then ultimately outside of South Africa: The Blood Knot. It went to London where good old Ken Tynan killed it stone dead. It launched my career, really, [it was a] watershed play.

I felt I had arrived, then, at a kind of crossroads. I had to choose disciplines. Of course they’re such very, very different disciplines. To this day, I still don’t think that I really know how to write a novel. I really mean that. I know I took the plunge [at the] deep end with Tsotsi.

I think I just naturally gravitated -- by virtue of my chemistry as a man, my metabolism as a writer -- towards theatre. And that snuffed out the possibility of being a prose writer, a novelist. I don’t think I could do the two in tandem. I don’t know if you really can... Can you think of any successful novelist who is also a good playwright --


PERHAPS BECKETT --

I don’t think you can --

“His Sunday night now, come in a warm cloud of smoke and darkness in the streets and moths raging in soft storms around the lamp; come under a velveted spread of smudged stars and a promise of the moon in the east where a white radiance is already leaping off the rooftops of houses that way; come at last after the hazy end to a day that loitered its way lazily through sunshine and prepares now for sleep with the widest yawn and longest stretch of the week. And wherever the people are gathered togethter in drowsy knots, in rooms, around fires in backyards, on street corners or drinking in the shebeens, words are thrown out dispiritedly like a dice game without a stake. The prospect of sleep and the passing of time recur like lucky numbers, but no one gets excited because no one stands to win.”
[extract from Tsotsi, pages 139-140]

TSOTSI, THE NOVEL, TO ME, IS MORE LIKE BLANK VERSE, WALT WHITMAN OR LAWRENCE --

You’re absolutely right. You know I’ve -- can you believe it -- but since writing it and forgetting it, and thinking the manuscript was lost or destroyed or whatever, I have actually not sat down and read the thing again. But I was asked once to go in a very very good literary festival up in Toronto, called the Harbor Literary Festival.


I HOPE THEY ASKED YOU TO READ SOME OF IT ALOUD!

Well they asked me to read something! And I thought to myself, you know, why not go back to [Tsotsi] -- cos it’s very difficult to read a play aloud. And I read [an extract from Tsotsi]. And it went down really well. The point to come back to is that you’re totally right about that style of writing that characterises Tsotsi. What is interesting and so frustrating is that, now that I’ve become aware of Tsotsi again, I realised that it could have led somewhere. That style could have developed and gone somewhere. I can’t go back there now. I can’t go back there now.


I REREAD CAMUS L’ETRANGER RECENTLY. IT READS LIKE A SCREENPLAY, IT’S SO SPARE...

It’s so beautiful. Have you had a chance, I’m sure you have, Chris, to sit down with his notebooks?


I HAVEN’T, UNFORTUNATELY.

Gosh, you must give yourself that treat. I owe so so much to Camus. I do a lot of reading, and I still do, but Camus was a decisive influence. If one’s going to look at influences in terms of my thinking -- whatever little things are stitched together to make a personal philosophy that works for my life and how I live it -- it’s encompassed, unquestionably, in the notebooks.

The concept that comes to mind immediately -- it remains as true for me today as it did for me back then -- what I think he defines at some point in one of his notebooks as “courageous pessimism”. The fact that the condition is ultimately pessimistic -- the one that we face as human beings in a hostile world, in a hostile universe -- but that we need courage. Given courage, there are certain things we can do which gives us dignity.


WHEN I HEAR “COURAGEOUS PESSIMISM”, TWO THINGS OCCUR TO ME. ONE, I USED TO KNOW A LOVELY LITTLE JEWISH PIANIST WHO TOURED SOUTH AFRICA WITH THE BODENWEISER DANCE COMPANY MANY YEARS AGO... SHE USED TO TALK ABOUT “GUILT FEELINGS”... SHE USED TO LIVE QUITE ASCETICALLY. I INTERPRETED HER PHRASE AS REFERRING TO FEELINGS OF RESPONSIBILITY FOR WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE WORLD. THE OTHER THING I THINK OF WHEN I HEAR “COURAGEOUS PESSIMISM” IS THAT WE NEED TO FACE THE TRUTH, CLEAR-EYED AND FEARLESSLY AND HONESTLY.

Somewhere in his notebooks Camus takes up a paragraph from Pascal’s Pensees. The Pascal paragraph is, simply: imagine a lot of men sitting in the darkness, chained together, sitting in the darkness in a room. Every day at sunrise, the door opens and the man at the end of the chain is led out and executed. The door closes, and those left behind know that, one day, their turn will come. To leave that darkness, to go out and end it all.

And Camus says yes, fine. But the question is: what do we do in that darkness? Do we feel sorry for ourselves? Do we bemoan our fate and shake our fists impotently at the gods who have done this to us? Or do we reach out and touch the shoulder of a stranger next to us, ask his name and his story, give him your name and your story. And for me that is such an incredible image of what one can do with one’s life or the challenge one faces with one’s life.

If, like myself, you do not really have a faith that posits a heaven or some sort of event after, you know, the heart stops beating, that for me is such a beautiful image.


IT’S A BEAUTIFUL METAPHOR FOR MAKING THEATRE, TOO, ISN’T IT?

Yes, that’s right. It’s interesting that you raise the question of guilt because, inevitably, apart from whatever other things go into making me the man I am... As a white South African with a liberal conscience, I had to shoulder my full share of a sense of responsibility for what was happening in my country. And guilt was really something I had to learn to live with.

Afrikaners realised they could not button up this country any more, and South Africa made this dramatic -- virtually miraculous -- turnaround in terms of what it had been and what it was going to try to be... And that of course had a hugely liberating effect on me. And I think that I’m beginning to jettison, now, that burden. I think I’ve already actually, truthfully, jettisoned quite a lot of it.


I’D LIKE YOU TO TALK ABOUT COMPETING DEMANDS AND DESIRES... TO SPEAK OUT AND RIGHT WRONGS VERSUS SELF EXPRESSION? DO THEY ALWAYS COMPETE? WHEN HAVE THEY BEST BEEN ENTWINED IN YOUR WORK?

You can’t escape it, you know. It was there, in bed, when I made love. It was there in the toilet when I sat on the throne. You know, it was there everywhere. It creates a dynamic of its own. And anything I have written -- I think everything I have written -- even the most seemingly innocuous [plays] that ostensibly have nothing to do with the so-called politics of South Africa -- are profoundly influenced by it.


IS THIS THE SENSE IN WHICH YOU FEEL LIBERATED, NOW?

Absolutely, absolutely, yes, yes, very much so.


WHAT DOES THAT LIBERATE YOU TO DO?

It’s effect is a very simple one, actually. I have likened my experience during those [years] -- which made up what will always be the bulk of my writing life -- the 40 years of official apartheid in South Africa, from the point when the Afrikaner National Party came into power, then the release of Nelson Mandela, I’ve likened my sense of myself and living a life as a man walking a tightrope. And the safe platform at one end was the purely personal issues, family issues, dramas within the family, dramas within the relationship. And the safe platform at the other end of the tightrope was the platform of the political: of acting, of active engagement in politics and of speaking up and speaking loudly, speaking out about whatever was happening, whatever outrage was currently on the front pages of our newspapers. And there I was wishing those two platforms could come together! Knowing that I had to somehow balance myself between the two of them. Sometimes moving a little closer to the personal, sometimes moving a little closer to the political. But always, always, living always on a line that was defined by the polarity of those two opposites and the tension it created.

One of the problems I had... I was a writer. And it has taken me the longest time to arrive... Because it was a dilemma. My friends... There were friends of mine who were in jail because they had made bombs and had planted them. There were friends of mine who had to run for their lives into foreign countries. There were friends of mine who committed suicide outside of South Africa because they just couldn’t live with themselves anymore and by virtue of all that had happened... There were friends of mine who were driven into exile. And there was I writing. And it has taken me a very long time. I’ve arrived at it, now. I arrived at it with a very important play of mine -- in terms of my own personal progress -- with a play of mine called My Children, My Africa. With that play, I examined this issue in a sense. And I realise that 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.


I’D LIKE YOU TO TALK, FOR A MOMENT, ABOUT TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION...

It is the ultimate challenge that we face in South Africa and we are still facing it, Chris. There’s no matter that a legally-appointed body, no matter how well intentioned the people are who sit on it and interview and ask the questions. Not matter how rich and deep and profound and meaningful all those intentions are... There’s no way you can legislate for the human heart. The truth has come out, the full horror... although there might be incidents we know nothing of, and will never know anything of, and others that we will eventually hear of -- in terms of a catalogue of those nightmare years -- so it’s achieved that. It’s achieved that.

We have had the courage to try and face our past -- and are still trying to face it -- and deal with it. But the question of forgiveness, that is a mystery, man. That is locked away in the human heart, and you can’t say that it’s going to happen if you create a certain situation that you think is going to be favourable for it.

You know, it’s the mystery of the confessional in the Catholic Church. The confession and absolution. God knows, the church knows what a profound and mysterious event that is. Not that I... I’m obviously not a Catholic. But I have a respect for that experience of people’s lives...


IN A PLAY LIKE -- I THINK IT WAS PLAYLAND -- ALSO IN TSOTSI...

You’ve got it, of course. You’ve put your finger right on it. That is my essay into that area of mystery: when do you tell another human being “I did it”; and when does another human being with absolute rock bottom sincerity need open himself and ask you: forgive me?


IS IT “COURAGEOUS PESSIMISM” TO ACTUALLY MAKE A CONFESSION TO SOMEONE AND NOT KNOW WHETHER THEY WILL [FORGIVE YOU]?

Yes it is, absolutely. Absolutely. Because you know it’s... To forgive... My god, we all know we must do it, but, wow! In certain instances, that is a very very very high Everest to climb.



See also, Fugard’s comments in a follow-up email.


Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi is published in Australia by Text Publications. Gavin Hood’s Oscar-nominated film is in Australian cinemas from April 13.

A new book of short stories ‘Karoo and other Stories’ is published by David Philip in South Africa. (It’s available on-line for R130 plus P&H through kalahari.net.)

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Hoist Theatre Group and Theatreworks: Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone by Vanessa Rowell

Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone by Vanessa Rowell. Directed by Emma Valente. Designed by Kate Davis. Presented by Hoist Theatre Group and Theatreworks. At Theatreworks, 14 Acland Street St Kilda, until February 25.

Here we are, a week after Betty Friedan's death, and the feminist wheel needs reinventing one more time.

A once "sexy, smart, confident and ambitious woman" is housebound, chained to her kitchen table in service of her beloved husband and daughter. Abigail is still besotted with her husband Jason, but he's secretly having it off with a gorgeous young thang named Chantel... who just happens to be Jason and Abigail's adoptive daughter. Nice.

And did I mention that Chantel's pregnant? If you're feeling squeamish already, maybe this play's not for you! It makes Woody Allen's life look like... um... a Woody Allen comedy.

This is a very ambitious play. Vanessa Rowell's dialogue is heightened and poetic. It's as if we're watching a brand new Greek legend being born. (Try as I might, though, I couldn't fit Rowell's Jason into the old Argonauts story -- though he does seem to be 'fleecing' other countries of their golden, innocent young -- and Abigail, sadly, is no vengeful Medea...)

The action is an oil and vinegar mix of police procedural naturalism and surreal magic. Chantel is rescued (or kidnapped) after a binge drinking session with a prettyboy named Girt. For his deeds, Chantel threatens to torture and kill Girt, then tries to rape him.

Rowell's play makes great demands on the cast. It's remarkable that Alexis Beebe, for example, should make the masochistic wife -- a woman still besotted with her nasty, cold, abusive husband -- so believable. And so utterly abject. Having said that, the overall style of acting employed -- a barefooted "hey, wow!" style of drama school histrionics -- is hard to stomach.

This is a mighty good-looking production, thanks to designer Kate Davis. The infertile Abigail has an lush kitchen table, with wire baskets of yummy ingredients hanging off it. The master/slave bed is a wooden skiff -- the ultimate water bed I guess -- with heavy anchor ropes attached. And Abigail is tied, in a couple of senses of the word.

It seems to me that there's a degree of confusion between the writer and her director, Emma Valente; either a mismatch or some confusion within their individual contributions. The end product is oddly noncommital. Loose. A striving for effect where the desired effect hasn't really been fixed upon... so it just dissipates.


This review was published in the February 20 2006 edition of the Herald Sun.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

National Theatre of Great Britain: An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley

An Inspector Calls by JB Priestley. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Designed by Ian MacNeil. With Pip Donaghy, Sandra Duncan, David Roper, Mark Healy, Emma Darwall Smith, Mark Field and Diana Payne Myers. A National Theatre of Great Britain production. At Her Majesty’s Theatre, Exhibition Street, Melbourne. February 11. Season ends February 26. Then Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, from March 16.

Like the ghost of old King Hamlet, doom’d for a certain term to tread the boards, Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls has become a zombie production in the last thirteen and a half years: more chilling, more abstract, more surreal. And, unquestionably, less lively. Less lifelike.

The first incarnation of Daldry’s production opened at the NT’s Lyttleton Theatre on September 11, 1992, transferred to the Olivier and Aldwych Theatres before touring internationally. It had a season over the road, here, at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne, in the autumn of 1995. Then, it had Barry Foster in the key role of Inspector Goole. The production is immeasurably better off without him and his faintly ludicrous histrionics... acting better suited to dodgy old episodes of Doctor Who than the stage.

This resurrected production (with Pip Donaghy as the inquisitor, Goole) builds in volume and pitch -- even violence -- over two hours, without ever quite generating anything resembling emotional or dramatic heat. That’s an observation, and not necessarily a criticism, but I haven’t yet fathomed just what Daldry’s intentions in this restudy are. Or, indeed, if those intentions have been jettisoned -- worked off like ghostly sins -- somewhere between life and afterlife.

There’s a striking and puzzling two-dimensionality in the staging, in the tableaux, despite the looming and precarious presence of the Birling family home, a ship-like wedge of Edwardian Yorkshire suspended in a wartime void.

That’s a second world wartime void, incidentally; a production decision which takes into account the fact that Priestley wrote his dramatic parable about the increasing gulf between the rich and powerful and the powerless and impoverished in the mid 1940s, when England was ready to turn to Labour under Clement Attlee.

The Birlings live in a preposterously fragile bubble, a doll’s house with rotten and exposed foundations. A party at the Birling home (to celebrate the engagement of daughter Sheila to the aristocratic Gerald Croft) is interrupted by Goole, who proceeds to implicate each and every guest in the suicide death of a young woman named Eva Smith.

In scene after scene, the actors in this passion play line up as if for a still photograph, a studio portrait. One can imagine each scene in monochrome, in sepia tones; one can almost see the powder flashes...

The acting style is similarly arch. Practiced. Impregnable. Rigid. Each face is prepared for -- and designed to deflect or thwart -- scrutiny. But, again, given the length of time this production has been strutting the world stage, it’s perhaps not surprising that the fortification has become hollow, an apparently empty carapace.

It’s intriguing to watch, I must say, but quite quite inexplicable.

Equally inexplicable is the decision to make the conscience-inspecting Inspector Goole visibly fearful of the Birlings, apparently spooked by their wealth and power.

The semiotically rich set, the bombastic wannabe Wagnerian music, the posse of ragamuffins flowing and ebbing across the stage, the sudden changes of lighting from unnatural to supernatural, the postmodern intrusions, the sudden appearance of the Inspector in one of The Maj's Juliet balconies...

All of these tricks invite us to think big. Invite us to read extravagant meanings into the performance text. But we’re unanchored. There’s no framework. It’s a whorl, a torrent, a meaningless twister of signs. Signs pointing in all directions at once. When, rather, they should be symptoms pointing at -- or at least hinting at -- society’s ills.

That would be true Priestley.

I have no objection to Daldry bouncing around on a sixty year old play as if it were a trampoline, but his somersaults look pretty lame. They’re tricks... and we’re looking for treats.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Virgins: a musical threesome by Mathew Frank and Dean Bryant

Virgins: a musical threesome by Mathew Frank (music) and Dean Bryant (book, lyrics and stage direction). Music direction by Luke Byrne. Set and costume design by Adam Gardnir. Lighting design by John Dutton. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Choreographed by Natalie Marsland. Echelon Productions. Tower Theatre at the Malthouse, Melbourne, until February 11.

With Eddie Perfect on my right and Robert Reid in front of me at the premiere of this three-in-one show, I realised that the anguished, futile, age-old quest for a “Great Australian Musical” had -- at long last -- been abandoned. Instead, we’ll do what we’ve always done best: musical black comedies, revue-style bitching satires and what Jack Hibberd would call a display of shanks...

And there I was, sitting next to cabaret terrorist “Angry Eddie” -- pin-up boy of the despairing, disempowered left... as similar to Rod Quantock as a rocket-launcher is to an emaciated toy chook.

In front of me was Theatre in Decay’s artistic director, Reid, the man single-handedly responsible for the most despicable, juvenile and crass musical yet devised: The Last Ride... an awesomely and shamefully funny piece about the Belanglo State Forest serial murders. A show that made Urinetown look like as risky as a requiem mass.

Both Reid and Perfect seemed very much at home at this particular virgin’s first night.

Virgins might not storm the world like Urinetown, or even Bran Nue Dae, but it is a mighty effort from a supremely talented and determined duo. It’s in three self-contained parts: The Virgin Wars, Girl on the Screen and Jumpin’ the Q.

Tracy and the Virgins are an all-girl cheer-squad of militant virgins who tour U.S. high schools preaching the virtues of virtue. It’s gradually revealed that one or two (or more) of the teens might in fact be “born again” virgins. Indeed, Essie (Esther Hannaford) spends so much of her time with a head in a bucket, back stage, I was looking for clues as to whether this particular gig by the girls was a morning one or not...

Between sound bites about teens getting pregnant in the USA every 31 seconds, there are some ripper songs about virginity (with such choice lyrics as “there’s no use-by date on your snatch”) and sexually-transmitted diseases. (Indeed, a bit about chlamydia wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place in a production of Hair!)



According to lyricist-director Dean Bryant, Virgins was inspired by Britney Spears “both specifically and in a general sense.” Bryant’s discovery that Britney “was a figurehead of the burgeoning abstinence movement in the US” combined with “the irony... that a highly sexualised teen would be used to promote the idea of not having sex” fired him up. “Both the movement, and the idea of harnessing the power of popular culture to sell it, seemed ripe with theatricality.”

The Virgin Wars is high on energy (the donned habits were more reminiscent of Nunsense than Madonna Ciccone) and low on subtlety...

Sample dialogue:
Let’s blow this joint.
Too late!
Oh, and the high school band’s name is Dick Cheese and the Burning Sensations. Cute.

But the staging here is so inventive and the performers are so adorable, it’s impossible not to give in to the delirium.


The second part, Girl on the Screen, follows without a break, even though half the audience seating -- and half the audience -- is relocated onto the stage area. The mid section is a bit of burlesquery with a story about an investigative journalist Lauren (Amanda Levy, still hot from playing cheersquad leader Tracy in the first act) whose long-overdue holiday is interrupted by her boss and a request to write an exposé about one-woman internet porn operations. This is an overwrought and slightly forced piece about a woman confronted by the overt sexuality of the women she meets and interviews.

Girl on the Screen is held together by a remarkable performance by Kellie Rode (left), who plays the top hatted and fish-net wearing vamp hostess with breathtaking conviction. And, believe me, up this close, anything less than complete confidence would be ruinous. The rest of the girls play the domestic porn entrepreneurs.







The last piece, Jumpin’ the Q, is a mini masterpiece of musical political satire. It skates at the very cusp of bad taste so skillfully that I found it hard not to hyperventilate. In international waters, a quartet of refugees is competing for Australian citizenship (and a recording contract) in a live-to-air contest. It’s a cross between Australian Idol, a Miss World-style quest and a Eurovision Song Contest.

Competing are Kursten (Hannaford, left, whose singing here is amazing), a white refugee from Zimbabwe; Coco Delizioso (Verity Hunt-Ballard), a salsa-dancing wench from Colombia; Namida (Rode), a Muslim woman escaping from Iran; and Ulrike Dancehertitsoff (Rosemarie Harris), from the Russian Federation. The contest is hosted by Holly, played by Levy.

As in the previous acts, the set-up in Jumpin’ the Q allows for individual song and dance routines and set pieces. And these are superbly handled. For her big number, Rode appears in a soft blue Persian Gulf-style abaya, designed by Adam Gardnir. It’s hijab worthy of Kylie Minogue circa ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’! A little more modest though, I hasten to add.

Despite the clichés and predictabilities in the characterisation and the script, Jumpin’ the Q sets its sights squarely on Australia’s resurgent xenophobia, and on the government and media that have fed the flames. It hits its marks gleefully.

The staging throughout -- every element of the sound and visual design -- is sophisticated, but it’s all hidden beneath an unpretentious (and occasionally undergraduate) veneer.

Virgins is an exceptional ‘fringe’ show. With a little more work on the book and lyrics -- and some input from a dramaturg or experienced director -- it could go anywhere. And probably should.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Power... without power: Athol Fugard’s “unplugged” art

A great majority of what passes for theatre in our playhouses might well fall into the category “unnecessary theatre”, powerfully enunciated by Daniel Keene in a previous posting, here, so it’s especially important that we celebrate theatre’s “true believers” when we find them. Somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Daniel Keene -- chronologically and artistically speaking -- falls South African playwright Athol Fugard.

I had the privilege of interviewing Fugard this week on the occasion of the publication of his one and only novel Tsotsi in Australia by Text Publications. (The 45 year-old novel didn’t see the light of day until the early ’80s, and has never before been published in Australia.)

We followed up our telephone conversation (Melbourne to San Diego) with an exchange of emails. I’d like to quote part of his most recent to me. It’s a fine riposte to Daniel Keene’s comments.

He begins: “at this point in my life -- age 74 -- I am more in love with my craft as a playwright than at any time in the past.”

Good theatre, he writes, “taps into the most mysterious regions of the human psyche.” (He defines “good theatre” as having “a truth in the writing, a truth in performance and a willingness to confront those truths in the audience.”)

“When those three conditions... are met, Theatre possesses a power which I think is unequalled by any other art form.”

Fugard modestly describes himself as a storyteller and, elegantly, describes theatre as one of the “unplugged” arts. Film, he writes, leaves him cold. “Theatre -- and I am a practitioner of the purest form of it, ‘poor theatre’ -- is unique among the live arts in what it occupies: the three dimensions of space and then time and then silence.”

Asked if he is ever frustrated that theatre reaches only a niche audience -- rarely the young and rarely the masses -- he responds: “I simply can’t equate significance with a body count. Theatre goes to work on the matrix of a society in a way that film, TV etc with their audience of millions, can never do. I know this for a fact because I saw it happen in South Africa. Could there conceivably be a greater piece of contemporary theatre than Nelson Mandela sitting down at a table with the men who took way from him the best 27 years of his life, and drawing up a blue print for a New South Africa? You do know don’t you that while he was in prison, Mandela play Creon in a production by prisoners of Sophocles Antigone?”

“There you have it,” he concludes. Leaving his computer and the satellite coverage of the cricket match between India and Pakistan, “I go back to my desk and the play I am writing.”

In the coming weeks, I’ll post some highlights of our conversation.


See also my profile of Fugard in centre pages of this weekend’s Financial Review, the February 4-5 2006 edition.

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