Monday, July 31, 2006

Philip Roth: Everyman

Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, A$29.95)

Philip Roth goes to baffling lengths to avoid giving his dead narrator a name... as if that might somehow make the experience of this particular man -- 71 years old, six foot three, adman, atheist, womaniser and serial husband -- more universal.

“Every man” he is not, though his particular sickness is quintessentially male: the realisation that it is “too late”. It’s a pathology that Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee have also explored recently and far less less well. Roth himself trod this path in The Dying Animal (2002), in which a man who should be considering retirement instead considers a liaison with an “abundantly-breasted” student 38 years his junior.

But the title of Roth’s slim new novel, surely, refers to the 16th century English morality play in which Everyman is summoned by Death. In his final hour, Everyman finds he has been abandoned by Fellowship, Kindred and Cousin. He is dependent on Good Works. Roth’s Everyman has few good works to shore against his ruin. Apart from his Cordelia-like daughter from his second marriage, Nancy, he leaves little behind but wreckage and regrets.

The inexorable decline of his former “physical perfection” in the last decade has given rise to feelings of enormous bitterness and frustration. He is even estranged from his loyal older brother Howie, his first true love.

Everyman begins with our unnamed narrator’s funeral and ends with his death. One wants, immediately, to reread the book. Rather than circle around, the book executes a neat figure eight, the symbol of eternity.

Yet the writing is erratic. It’s a clumsy mash-up of Joan Didion’s devastating autobiography The Year of Magical Thinking and a bittersweet sitcom drama like Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lesson In Six Weeks. Other parts are blackly reminiscent of TV show Six Feet Under, even down to the “vile little quaker slut” our ‘hero’ abandons his first family for.

But for every part that rings hollow (such as shrill denial of religion) there are two bursting with easy grace and a shining passion for life. WB Yeats couldn’t have come up with a better or more poetic description of the narrator as a young man: a “bony, seabattling boy.” A description of a funeral -- the narrator’s father -- could hardly be more evocative... or more harrowing.

Everyman might not be a good choice for the uninitiated, it’s nowhere near Roth’s best, but it is a rare and breathtakingly honest glimpse into the mind of one man.

This review was published in edition 259 of The Big Issue (Australia)

See also: best books of 2006

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Brisbane Festival and Performing Lines: Unspoken by Rebecca Clarke

Unspoken. Written and performed by Rebecca Clarke. Directed by Wayne Blair. (Tour director Teresa Bell.) Designed by Genevieve Dugard. Lighting by Stephen Hawker. Original music and sound design by Basil Hogios. At The Loft, Musk Avenue, Kelvin Grove, until August 5. Then Mackay, Thuringowa, Gladstone and Rockhampton.

Also Sydney (Seymour Centre, August 30 to September 16) and Parramatta (Riverside Theatres, September 20-23).

“I’m coming home,” Rebecca Clarke shrieks, delightedly, at the start of Unspoken. And, indeed, she is... professionally speaking. Clarke is performing, this week, at her alma mater, Queensland University of Technology, where she studied acting. And she’s doing the rounds of Queensland’s regional arts centres in August.

Unspoken is an outstanding piece of autobiographical story-telling -- vivid and emotional -- without ever quite cutting it as a fully-formed and polished piece of theatre.

Back when I lived in the logs and brown grass
Back at the beginning

I found a place on the metal bow of my dad’s boat
A place that held the sun inside of it
even as the night crept in

In that place
I dreamt about the someone
who would first see my budded body
the someone who would carry me

I dreamt about the family I would have

The people I would meet

The love that I would speak

The doors that would open up

I dreamt about the places I would see
and the cities that would swallow me

I promised myself to be untouched
Pure as the moon above

I think maybe
the old world saw me curling there
a tiny girl with a big head full of dreaming
holed up inside her father’s boat

And the old world said
“Let’s show this girl a kind of love she’d never think of”

And when the darkness finally closed round me
chasing me back to my house
I didn’t know that from that moment on...

Nothing would be the same again
Everything would be new

-- Rebecca Clarke (Unspoken, 2005)

That lack of shape and polish might not matter except for the fact that Rebecca Clarke states, in program notes: “It’s important to note that the story is inspired by my experiences, rather than being a literal representation of events and people.”

Unspoken is a decade in the life of Sweetie (Clarke, left) from the night she learns that her mother is pregnant with her kid brother Julian, to the night Julian’s heart stops beating in a hospital’s intensive care unit.

At the age of 15, with the birth of her severely disabled brother, Sweetie finds herself “responsible” for the first time.

Unspoken is also the story of a small coastal town girl lifting her sail to catch the winds of destiny, wherever they may drive her. Looking for meaning. Looking for love. Begging to be born and bundled up. She tries tongue kissing, cigarettes, university, sex and travel.

Word for word, Unspoken is a fine script. Poetic, allusive, rich. Playful too. Clarke weighs and plays with her words -- expressions like “cabin’s kitchen” and “my budded body” -- like a newcomer to the language.

Her story is profound and profane. Her baby brother Julian “skids” into the world “on a stream of poo” as if it were the most glorious entrance any baby could possibly make.

She tells us of her parents, red-eared with embarrassment, holding hands, when they announce that the have a new child on the way. Later, she talks about being “scented with her want” before losing her virginity to the boy she calls The Clown. “He’s as honest as he can be,” she says. Wise words from someone so young.

But the churning machinery of Unspoken’s plot looks like an add-on, a graft, a Frankenstein implant. Repeatedly, and bizarrely, her boyfriend is likened to her kid brother: The Clown’s lip “stitched and meaty” -- split in a fight -- is likened to Julian’s harelip; their respective inabilities to communicate; their need to be held above water; their dead weight in her arms.

References to the old world, and Sweetie’s need to sail across it, flap loosely like semaphore flags -- they invite interpretation but thwart it -- when they should be adding momentum to the narrative like spinnakers.

Clarke’s enunciation and projection need work. I was certain she was calling herself “Sweedie” and had to ask director Wayne Blair what her character’s name was. Likewise, “I dream of Danny” (the dreamboat) sounded perilously like “I dream of Daddy.” This, I’m guessing, was unintentional! (Sweetie shows no such interest in her father!)

We believe Clarke’s tears and anguish when they come, they’re honest enough, but they’re so hard won. (Was it Virginia Woolf talking about Joyce, in Ulysses? That he smashed windows, but wasted so much energy doing it.) And the emotional crescendo doesn’t go close to eclipsing the part of the play where country girl gets to the big smoke.

The teen at uni stuff -- where her smile stretches across her face like it could break -- is quite miraculous. “I long to be the sunshine in his hang-over Sunday,” she says, glittering, about a boy she’s just met. Days of Leonard Cohen love letters and nights of Toga parties... This stuff shakes our hearts more than the rest of the play combined.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre: Songs of the Wanderers by Lin Hwai-min

Wang Wei-ming in Songs of the Wanderers
(photograph: Yu Hui-hung, click on the image to enlarge)

Songs of the Wanderers by Lin Hwai-min. Lighting by Chang Tsan-tao, set design by Austin Wang, costume design by Taurus Wah, prop design by Szu Chien-hua and Yang Cheng-yun. Performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, July 26. Season ends July 29. Also Moscow, June 7-9, 2007.

When Cloud Gate first performed in Melbourne, John Cain was Premier, Victoria still had a State Bank and Melbourne’s Arts Festival was the Jake-the-peg third-leg of the Spoleto Festival dei due Mondi. Gian-Carlo Menotti presided.

The dance company -- in its early teens -- was then called Cloudgate Taipei Contemporary Dance Theatre and had 35 dancers variously trained in ballet, Chinese opera, Graham, Limon and Cunningham styles.

Founder, artistic director and choreographer (not to mention lecturer, best-selling novelist and Western opera director) Lin Hwai-min studied Chinese Opera movement in his native Taiwan and modern dance at the Martha Graham School in New York.

Mr Lin’s company, now, is a third smaller than it was in 1987, but it is every bit as dazzling and dramatic. More significantly, his hybrid of eastern and western styles has grown from sapling to maturity. It’s as solid and resilient as the Bodhi tree.

In Cursive II, Lin revealed his fascination for the glide of brush and ink on rice paper. In this earlier work, which dates from 1994 and was seen in Adelaide in March 1998, rice itself is the focus. Songs of the Wanderers uses literally tonnes of the stuff.

Wang Rong-yu in Songs of the Wanderers
(photograph: Hsieh An)

It falls like rain, it thumps to the ground like thunder, it sprays and sparks like fireworks. We hear its crunch and hiss. We note, wryly, that it is simultaneously social and solitary... rather like the human animal. All those unique-but-indistinguishable souls. Multitudes.

Watching Songs again, I realised it is about dying. Not death or rebirth, but the anguish and grieving associated with dying. The struggle with mortality. Parting. The relentlessness of death.

Yet Songs of the Wanderers is as glowingly beautiful as one of Turner’s late oil paintings.

Watching it, I remembered Richard Schechner’s silly pseudo-scientific euphemism for boredom. ‘Selective inattention’ he called it. For those shows you could tune in and out of.

Songs is meditative. Evocative. Time warping. But boring it is not. It prompts self-examination. It’s slow-moving. It sometimes demands willful concentration; but then, like all dance, there’s no second chance. It can’t be fixed. It can hardly be described.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan
(photograph: Lee Ming-hsun)

And this particular piece aspires to the spirituality of a whirling dervish performance. At the front of the stage, to the left, a man stands in a relentless sunshower of rice, his hands pressed together in front of him, in prayer. He stands motionless for the duration of the performance. Some 70 minutes. He’s buried to his ankles when the show begins. The mound of rice is up to his knees by the end of the performance. He’s like something out of Beckett. Happy Days.

Behind and around him, a low ridge of rice snakes like a border between countries. Slowly, six men enter from the rear carrying long forked sticks which have a single leaf-like bell dangling from the tip. These men journey in solitude. It’s a diaspora. A dispersal. One by one they fall with a whoosh, blasting rice before them.

In the opposite corner to the one who prays, a knot of eight women forms. Freezes. ‘Friezes’. Then jerks into life.

Cho Chang-ning’s solo is gorgeous, with rippling, furling arms.

In the next section, On The Road I, we see each staff as a divining rod, a weapon... then a staff again. A sweeper ploughs a path with astonishing athleticism and control.

Rite of Tree is the one weak section of the work. Men whack themselves with small branches. The flagellation is well executed, but horribly overacted.

The best (and best sustained) parts of Songs pair-off the men and women of the company. First with the men seated -- their straight sticks slotted into forked sticks to make solid apexes above them -- and the women climbing them. And, later, when a few of the women are shouldered by the men, holding jagged arabesques and clasping the top part of the sticks as they are carried away.

The choreography is full of stretches, splayed fingers and toes, kinked limbs, slow lunges, extensions, waves and twists. Parts are more acrobatic, even breakneck, but even breathing and careful discipline rule. And that, of course, makes the rare explosions of light and rice tossing all the more dramatic. Our senses are heightened by the silence and recorded Georgian chants. (Fans of Kate Bush will recognise one of the folk songs, it was used on her 1985 song ‘Hello Earth’.)

Lee Ching-chun in Songs of the Wanderers
(photograph: Lee Ming-hsun)

This is dance aspiring to the state of religion. It’s capped off with a brief, dizzying whirl -- one palm up, one palm down -- like the Sufi order of dervishes. Instead of religion served as performance, a la the whirling dervishes, this is performance served as ritual. Beyond confronting us with the brevity of our time on earth, it has no overarching agenda.

And, indeed, while it is deeply spiritual, it is -- inevitably -- very sensual. It’s coolly abstract yet bare-limbed and muscular. Its other great paradox is that it is both ascetic and generous.

I’m glad to have had the opportunity of seeing it again.

Later this year, Sylvie Guillem will perform a new solo piece choreographed by Lin Hwai-min. The still-untitled work will be staged at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, from September 19.

Cursive II and Wild Cursive are at Shinjuku Cultural Center, Tokyo, from September 21-24. Wild Cursive will be performed at Columbia College (Chicago) and UC Berkeley in October.

In 2007, Cursive can be seen at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, February 13 & 14, and Wild Cursive will play in Perth (His Majesty’s Theatre, February 19-21) and Sydney (Opera House, May 22 & 23).

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Griffin Stablemates: The Cold Child (Das Kalte Kind) by Marius von Mayenburg

The Cold Child (Das Kalte Kind) presented by Clare Rainbow and Griffin Stablemates. Translated by Maya Zade. Directed by Anthony Skuse. Set and costume design by Dane Laffrey. Lighting design by Verity Hampson. Sound design by Kim Benware. At SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross. Season ends August 5.

There’s a beguiling theatrical imagination at work in this production that’s every bit as charged -- as superheated -- as the sexual frustration which threatens to destroy each and every character in Marius von Mayenburg’s play.

The frustration is born of fear, I think. Fear of rejection. Fear of loneliness. Fear of loss of authority and influence. Fear of loss of desirability. Fear of vulnerability too.

The fear within Lena (Helen Christinson) is so strong that it manifests itself before her eyes. Within the structure of the plot, these tiny terrors of hers are like a switching device -- a spin-the-bottle randomiser -- that provokes unpredictable but equally heated responses from the equally messed-up people around her.

Helen Christinson as Lena (click on the image to enlarge)
Production photographs by Brett Boardman

The first manifestation happens after an incident in the women’s toilet of a bar where Lena has gone to vomit, having drunk herself stupid to insulate herself from her father’s vociferous badgering. ‘Daddy’ (Peter Talmacs) wants her to abandon her Egyptology degree to do some real work... like book keeping!

Partly undressed -- having vomited on herself -- Lena comes face to face with Henning (Guy Edmonds, left, click on the image to enlarge) who gets his kicks by exposing himself or quietly masturbating while listening to women in their cubicles. Understandably, Lena freaks out... and is much more than merely grateful to the man who comes to her rescue: Johann (Douglas Hansell).

In that moment -- when Johann’s fist connects with Henning’s face -- Lena becomes Johann’s. That was our marriage, she thinks to herself, afterwards. Here, reality (such as it is) blurs with a flashback in which Lena flees a rapist, crawls naked beside a highway and is rescued by a besuited man in a luxury car -- who covers her nakedness with his jacket -- and takes her away. She falls into dreamy, content and (relatively) safe unconsciousness, lying on plush upholstery as they drive into the Freudian night.

Is it a nightmarish sexual fantasy? Or a terrible memory? Von Mayenburg doesn’t specify. Anthony Skuse’s direction is similarly elusive. Not noncommittal, I hasten to add. Just brilliantly, shiningly ambiguous. For Lena, it doesn’t matter whether the attempted rape happened or not. Her fear is so deep-seated -- it has been with her so long -- that it is real to her. It is a tangible part of the blasted landscape of her psyche. And it’s one she’s come to rather like, perhaps. A fractured 21st-century fairy-tale built on ultraviolence.

Her knight in shining duco, Johann, has just been rejected by his girlfriend Melanie. He proposed marriage. She refused and, instead, called the relationship off. Johann is happy to have Lena replace his heartbreaker... he occasionally slips and calls Lena ‘Melanie’. (Then, later, he does it to spite her.) Johann even presents Lena with the same ruby engagement ring. At that moment, another terror intrudes. The ring box becomes a grenade in Lena’s hand.
“In von Mayenburg’s nightmarish, melodramatic, sadistic and masochistic world, the only other driving force of any note is hatred...”
In von Mayenburg’s nightmarish, melodramatic, sadistic and masochistic world, the only other driving force of any note is hatred. It’s the one true passion. The abiding passion. The Family Value. It’s the essential repulsive force in the family nucleus. Daddy hates his elder daughter’s independence; ‘Mummy’ (Diana McLean) hates Daddy’s bullying.

Family friends Silke (Catherine Terracini) and Werner (Ryan Gibson) treat each other with utter contempt. Silke throws beer on their cold baby, in a pusher, to taunt Werner. She tells him: other people would have thrown the glass in as well. Cruelly, she goes off with Lena’s new husband to humiliate Werner... just as Johann goes off with her to hurt Lena.

The cold child’s fire-and-ice mother Silke (Catherine Terracini)

This isn’t a turgid, Sewellian tragedy, though. It’s a blackly funny erotic farce. It’s more French than German; viscously but not unrelievedly evil; it’s as breathtakingly sick and light-headed as François Ozon’s film Sitcom. It’s also reminiscent of Jules Feiffer’s mass hysteria-inducing play Little Murders.

The only felicitous match-up in von Mayenburg’s play, teams Henning-the-flasher with Lena’s underage sister Tine (Claire van der Boom). Henning, however, is unlikely to fulfill the rampant Lolita imaginings of the bright eyed Tine, who calls his bluff -- and drops her underwear -- as soon as she encounters him.

As enjoyable as this script is, the great delight of the production is what Skuse and his cast make of von Mayenburg’s writing. The characters hit the ground fully-formed and running. They take some catching up, in fact! From the second they storm on-stage, they’re utterly in their skin... and, it must be said, in (and out of) some fabulous clothes, courtesy of designer Dane Laffrey.

This is such a different experience to Benedict Andrews’ imaginative but relentlessly grim production of von Mayenburg’s recent play, Eldorado, at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre last month. There was no room for emotional or sexual heat in wartime Eldorado. Money and success were more important than life itself.

In Andrews’ production, the action was set behind glass, nine huge panels of it. And for the first hour, all of that action happened in a strip, barely a metre wide, running the length of the window. The fourth wall was made of glass. The actors had to be amplified.

Like von Mayenburg’s writing, Andrews’ direction was varied and episodic, and rarely anchored to reality. It was coolly exhilarating... an intellectual mad-mouse ride. But still oddly detached. It had -- as the cast sang at one particularly Lynchian moment -- a heart of glass.

In the tiny Stables Theatre, Skuse’s production can’t help but be liquid and molten in comparison. But if the actors were intimidated by the task set them -- even Mummy drops her rammies at one stage to use the on-set toilet -- there wasn’t a flicker of apprehension. Not a flicker.

Von Mayenburg’s women are, on the whole, better formed than his men. They’re more complex, more interesting, more divided. The men have their themes, their melodies, and they don’t deviate much from them.

So it’s no slight on the men in the cast if the women, one and all, eclipse them totally. They’re dramatic danseurs... there to do the heavy lifting while the women dazzle us with their twisting, blindingly-fast kicks and fouettes.

And, one and all, the women are amazing. Christinson, McLean, Terracini and van der Boom. In terms of work-load, Christinson carries the show. She bares all, emotionally. But all four have cracked open their roles. All four blaze away.

Van der Boom reminded me of Frances O’Connor when she made her pro stage debut. And O’Connor was, no doubt, the best stage actor of her generation.

Diana McLean, immensely poised as ‘Mummy’

McLean is immensely poised, a definition of grace under fire. She revels in the role of wannabe widow.

And Terracini is constantly on the brink of detonation from go to whoa. Rather than being tiring to watch, the struggle-made-visible is energising.

This is a fringe show in name -- and perhaps crew and cast wages -- only. It’s thrilling, engrossing, stylish, effortlessly erotic and quite deliciously exasperating.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Rolling, rolling, rolling, keep those blogs a rolling...

I know I’m a bit of a slacker when it comes to the whole blog-roll thing, letting the team down an’ all that. My attitude is this: if you go to Theatre Notes or Superfluities, you’ll find a rundown of all you need to read in the virtual theatre world. That said, I’d like to submit a couple of new names for consideration that might not otherwise make the cut with Alison and George.

First up is television is furniture, a rough-house, shit-stirring blog -- mostly theatre, mostly reviews -- by Danny Episode (a pseudonym for one of Melbourne’s most notorious fringe playwrights and directors). Sometimes Danny’s punctuation and spelling get lost in the bovver boy spewing of molten ideas, but he is an essential voice in a city where anything ‘off-boredway’ is, increasingly, dismissed by the broadsheets.

The two other new blogs I’d like to draw your attention to are by dancers: one a pro dancer with Bangarra Dance Theatre -- he’s currently swing in the touring production Clan -- the other a wannabe dancer who abandoned a Law degree at the start of the year to give a pro career her best shot. Both are natural writers, engaging, honest, fun and not at all precious. They’re also very smart, very articulate, very thoughtful.

Jhuny-Boy Borja, creator of Jhuny The Boy, is also a damn fine photographer who posts MP3 mixes. (The quality of which I can’t comment on, as yet... my computer keeps crashing before a download is done!)

As for Mistress Mess, author of The Dancer Diaries of Mistress Mess, you’re more likely to find her moshing than mixing her own.

Part Carrie Bradshaw, part the chick from Flashdance...
Mistress Mess preserves the secret of her true identity.

That’s pretty much all for now... except to say god bless Ben Ellis... the archest-enemy of windbaggery and hypocrisy.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Director’s Cut, Sydney Dance Company performing works by Narelle Benjamin and Graeme Murphy at the State Theatre, Melbourne, until July 15.

Gossamer by Narelle Benjamin. Music by Huey Benjamin. Costumes by Justine Seymour. Lighting by Damien Cooper. Projection design by Samuel James; projection imagery by Samuel James, Narelle Benjamin and Cordelia Beresford. Sound system design by Tim O'Neill.

“The plant never lapses into mere arid functionalism; it fashions and shapes according to logic and suitability, and with its primeval force compels everything to attain the highest artistic form.”
- Karl Blossfeldt

Asconitum (photograph by Karl Blossfeldt)

In her magnificent new work Gossamer, which heads this latest Sydney Dance Company program, Narelle Benjamin asks: what is the human body capable of? It’s an almost identical question to one asked by Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei in his New York company’s signature work, Rite of Spring, performed to Stravinsky’s ascetic version for two pianos.

Shen tests and pushes the limits of what the human animal can do: how far a limb can rotate, how fast a body can coil, roll, spin, flex and knot itself. And how perfectly, how lyrically, how precisely it can be done. It’s nothing he wouldn’t -- and doesn’t -- do himself. Mr Shen is one of the ten dancers that perform Rite.

Benjamin -- also an accomplished and dazzling performer -- does something slightly different here. What she demands (and largely gets) from her ten dancers is something more supernatural than superhuman. I’m a bit reluctant to use words like ‘disciplined’ and ‘well drilled’ to describe the performance; though it is patently well rehearsed and awesomely synchronised. It would be a little like calling the work of a Buddhist monk creating a sand mandala ‘painstaking’. It is a thoroughness and attention to detail born not of pain so much as joy. It is art born of -- dare I say it? -- spirituality.

Calling on the company’s acrobatic skills as well as the yoga moves she herself has taught dancers in recent years, Benjamin demands an almost meditative stillness (‘centredness’ might be a better word for such a dynamic thing) and balance from her ensemble.

Also like Shen’s Rite of Spring, Gossamer has a stand-out dancer who is the quintessence -- a tenth element though, rather than a fifth -- of the work. In Shen’s company, it is Kennis Hawkins. In Sydney Dance, it is Alexa Heckmann. Heckmann has a remarkable sense of form and line to go with the requisite physical skills... and she has those in dump-truck loads.

Alexa Heckmann and Reed Luplau, far left, in Gossamer
(photograph by Jeff Busby, click on the image to enlarge)

She squats on her hands with a lotus-tucked leg -- the other leg is extended in front of her, hovering parallel to the floor -- as if it were as easy as leaning against a wall while queuing for an ATM. Later, held lightly by the ankles, she stands on her head with her arms by her sides -- Alice in a natural Wonderland -- and is rocked slightly, as if by an undersea tide.

More impressively perhaps, Heckmann is also capable of not standing out. The recombinant quartet which opens the work -- with Andrea Briody, Emee Dill and Reed Luplau -- is a masterpiece of discretion. And it must be said that Luplau, more than once, eclipses the company’s superstar dancer Bradley Chatfield. There is no higher praise.

Gossamer is a thoughtful and abstract piece inspired, apparently, by the flora photography of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). The German sculptor and teacher was captivated by the designs he found in nature. [Acer Rufinerve, left.] He is said to have photographed nothing but plants for three and a half decades.

Just as Benjamin’s gestures and choreographic phrases have grown far beyond their yoga roots, the look of Gossamer transcends its motivations. Having said that, the design and look of the piece is as tenebrous and richly monochrome as a Blossfeldt photogravure.

Sea Holly (photograph by Karl Blossfeldt)

The action takes place between a front scrim and a rear screen, giving an almost holographic look to some of the projections. But the screens also compress the work into two dimensions, like pressing a flower, and they distance us from the action. In the low, wide, vast-staged State Theatre, even from the middle of the sixth or seventh row, where I was, I might have been watching a large screen TV. And I wanted 3D IMAX.

Cordelia Beresford’s gorgeous film footage dwarfed the immortals on stage. The swirly, slow, chop-stick scissoring images were just too distracting. The work was almost over by the time I worked out how to take in everything simultaneously. Before I could rangefind. Before I could compensate for the design team’s parallax errors.

Benjamin needs to find a way of capturing, in real time, ghost images of each star-spin and rippling swirl and hair flick... She needs to smear them on screens before our eyes, in persistent phosphors. She needs to give us a glimpse of relevant detail. It can be done. I’ve seen it done a couple of times by Sandra Parker, using footage by Margie Medlin, from memory. I’ve seen it done by Garry Stewart in Adelaide, more than once. It’s possible to record and stay live. To be distantly abstract and shockingly intimate at once. To give ‘whole’ and ‘detail’ simultaneously. Even in a 2000-seat theatre.

Alexa Heckmann on screen (photograph by Jeff Busby)

Despite these few flaws, Gossamer is a milestone work. Not just in Benjamin’s career, but in dance. And in visual art.

I can’t wait to see it again... or, indeed, to see what comes next from Benjamin.

In response to overwhelming interest, here’s another shot of company star (and heart throb) Reed Luplau. It’s by Stephen Ward. (You know the drill, click on it to enlarge!)

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Brian Lipson on theatre

“I have absolutely no idea why I make theatre. But for some reason I do. It is only when I’m making theatre that I am lucid in body and mind -- never at any other time in my life. I wish this wasn’t so, but it is. I think theatre has the potential to create entirely original relationships with every new show. That’s why I love it. Theatre also has the potential to be utterly predictable. That’s why I hate it.

I like theatre to be entertaining because it forces me and an audience to change our perceptions of ourselves -- every moment. I like theatre to be hard work -- if it isn’t, I don’t feel that I’ve earned my money.

“Theatre should be an adventure not a package tour.”

And there should be a reason for the precise shape and position of every item in a performance -- prop, word or action. Nothing should be decorative. Everything should be serious in the theatre and that includes really silly stuff. I want to make theatre that holds a mirror up to nature then shatters it.”

-- Artist Philosophy, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber

Designer, actor, writer, director and now teacher, Brian Lipson was a key member of some of England’s key experimental theatre companies -- Lumiere and Son, Rational Theatre and Hidden Grin -- in the 1970s and ’80s. He worked as a designer (“the best part was designing with Lindsay Kemp”) before studying acting at East 15. His most “treasured theatrical experiences” are watching shows by the Wooster Group and, in particular, Ron Vawter.

He has also worked in film, television and mainstage theatre (thanks, he says, to Thatcherism and having to raise a young family) and has lived in Melbourne since 1998. He teaches at the Victorian College of the Arts and divides his stage time between fully-funded productions by flagship companies and more quixotic one-off projects. He is old enough to know better and young enough -- at heart -- not to care.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Sydney Opera House: A Large Attendance in the Antechamber by Brian Lipson

Brian Lipson channeling Sir Francis Galton

Like Ben Affleck in a deodorant commercial, the brilliant and eccentric English scientist Francis Galton wandered the countryside clicking off comely wenches as he encountered them. His object? To make a “beauty map” of the British Isles. London high-scored. Aberdeen got the proverbial wooden spoon.

This from the man who, among other things, invented the silent dog whistle, ‘discovered’ the anti-cyclone and revolutionised the study of statistics... Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, is reputed to have had the highest ever recorded IQ, upwards of 200.

For each and every one of Galton’s magnificent and visionary breakthroughs, though, there is an embarrassing and blinkered dead-end. He was the first to attempt to quantify the effects of nature and nurture, but he wasted years measuring the skull sizes of 9000 visitors to his self-styled ‘Anthropometric Laboratory’, convinced he could gauge intelligence through body measurements alone.

Galton’s application of statistics to fingerprint analysis made the forensic use of prints a reality in 1892, the year he published his thesis; meanwhile, he had a soft spot for phrenology... the psychological equivalent of palm reading. He believed he could know the content of a man’s character from the bumps on his skull.

According to the leonine Brian Lipson, who has played Galton over a number of years and a number of continents, he was “quite scientific in his application” of phrenology. “He admitted that he never found the true criminal type... But what he did do was determine that there wasn’t one.”

Galton had far more success, he believed, in quantifying a true Jewish type. He roamed London’s East End measuring and photographing. Galton greatly admired the Jewish population’s ability to maintain a cultural and racial purity through religion and law, through match-making and dress codes for example.

“Maintaining the purity of the race is a eugenic exercise, obviously,” Lipson told me from his home in Melbourne, last week. “And religion -- the worshipping of the people themselves as the chosen people and keeping that pure -- is [both] a religious exercise and a eugenic one.”

Galton’s research was welcomed by the Jewish population -- he wrote about it often for the Jewish Chronicle -- it was seen as a contribution to the ancient Talmudic debate over Judaism... is it a religion or a race? It is a terrible irony, then, that Galton’s great dream, of improving the world through eugenics, would one day become a horrific nightmare for one of the most successful natural exponents of its laws.

Galton’s idea of utopia was a world where only the high achievers reproduced, and were richly rewarded for doing so. Those of “inferior birth” were to be actively discouraged. He went as far as drawing up a document, a kind of permit, to be issued to those deemed suitable for breeding.

For Galton, eugenics was more than science. “He actually thought of it, really, as religion,” said Lipson.

Galton married into the Huxley family. He was, himself, a textbook example of eugenic engineering. Yet they did not have children. The master race stopped dead. Galton’s biographers go as far as wondering if the marriage was ever consummated.

“I’ve been living with him for many years,” says Lipson. “Really, this guy is autistic. He was a much more intense relationship with numbers than he could ever have with people.”

So, why Galton and why now? Lipson trades question for question: “What is genetic engineering if it’s not eugenics?”

Lipson’s show -- which he also devised and helped design -- is half freak show, half seance. The 57 year-old actor stuffs himself in a box, like the embalmed body of Jeremy Bentham at University College in London, “five feet by four.”

Though physically gruelling, there are “compensatory pleasures,” he says with a twinkle. Invulnerability is one.

“It doesn’t matter if I dry. If I don’t know what happens next. If an audience member comes up on stage and starts talking to me. I always have total control.”

That “seductive and disturbing” power came in handy when Lipson was performing in Charleston, South Carolina, where the (white) natives were very restless indeed.

Asked if he had malicious fun performing the role in the deep south, Lipson admits: “Oh, very much so. Because the response was pointed, what I did was pointed in return. Pretty quickly people realise that they haven’t a hope in hell.”

A Large Attendance in the Antechamber is at the Playhouse until July 16

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