Tuesday, July 10, 2007

IRL versus ICB

The place I call Headquarters, La Mama theatre, is built for close encounters, literally and metaphorically... Make that metatheatrically.

You have to rub shoulders at the old shirt factory, especially when 50 people are crammed into a place that is a few cubic metres smaller on the inside than it should be -- the reverse of the TARDIS -- the thanks to innumerable coats of paint (the "discount economy" stage set) applied over the last forty years... more coats of paint than the much loved and much vandalised sculpture, Ron Robertson-Swann's Vault.

Here it is in its recent home, next to the Malthouse and ACCA.

And here it is, in Batman Park.

Funny... the only image I could find of Vault without graffiti was as a maquette! But I digress...

A few weeks ago, at HQ, I was approached by a giant of a man after that night's play ended. He smilingly introduced himself as Adam Cass. Those of you with middlingly good memories will recall that Cass and I locked horns -- banged heads too -- over the 2006 Short and Sweet season. Daniel Schlusser, if memory serves, reckoned we turned criticism into a contact sport and likened us to a pair of middleweights as we slugged it out in various comments threads, starting at Mink Tails. (Like Fight Club, any ol' venue would suffice!)

Anyway, I doubt I would have taken Adam on quite so aggressively if I'd seen him IRL -- as we bloggers like to call it -- In Real Life. While we didn't quite kiss and make up last year (though I did give him a big, unexpected hug when we met, much to his consternation!) we agreed, finally, to disagree... and disagree a bit more civilly.

In twenty years of reviewing, I've had to be highly critical of acquaintances and friends -- sometimes close friends -- just as I've had to lavish praise on enemies. (You know who you are!) But, more often than not, the artists I review tend to be perfect strangers.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don't avoid people I write about, good and bad. For me, it's a case of IRL or ICB: In Cold Blood. Best to imagine having to "back up" when you put finger to keyboard.

It's considerably more rare, I'm sure, for talent to meet a crrritic as it is for us to face them. And, yes, I've met people I know who want to kneecap me. (One or two have said as much.)

A few years back a performer, still smarting that I dismissed his show in two words ("pretty naff") (youch, what was I thinking!) was introduced to me. He spat it. I bit my tongue. But looked him in the eye. I had the comeback all ready -- an inyerface "WHAT, DO YOU THINK I DIDN'T MEAN IT?!" -- but decided not to press it home. My attitude is something like: oh well, he'll believe my praise when he gets it. If he gets it.

Last Friday, on one of the most miserable evenings of the winter so far, I aquaplaned to La Mama in Carlton to see Newtown Honey, a ten year-old play by Marty Denniss. There were two fires going: one in the courtyard and one in the theatre, so it was relatively cosy... well, cosy enough to take one coat off.

And whose shoulders did I find myself rubbing up against? Those of Ms TN herself, Alison Croggon. In tow, was Alison's youngest, Ben. I knew, immediately, that we were in for some explicit sex and/or explicit violence. It's the luck of the draw. And Ben gets it every time. (God only hopes he doesn't think all theatre is like this!) (One local playwright and novelist accused Alison of child abuse when she took Ben to see Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul in February... presumably because the seating for this 210 minute-plus-interval play were obscenely and arse-numbingly inadequate!)

Now, to cut to the chase... In theatre, we often (quite legitimately) write off differences of opinion to having seen different shows, with different audiences and different dynamics. (Out of courtesy, I typically won't review a second night performance.) Even seating position (the vagaries of acoustics in a theatre, sightlines, angle, distance and, consequently, kinaestheic involvement/empathy) will affect our response to a performance.

But there Alison and I were. Side by side. Me bored to tears, Alison not. (I have a strong suspicion that Ben was never more than disinterestedly curious -- even during the simulated sex -- but that he was too polite to disagree with his mum, il miglior fabbro an' all that!)

Anyway, Alison's review of Newtown Honey has been posted, at Theatre Notes. You'll have to wait a day or two for my dissenting opinion to be printed in the Herald Sun. (It's a longy.)

Perhaps a sneak peek is in order:
Denniss tries so hard to invent words for his actors -- new constellations and showers of words -- that he forgets to invent a world for them to inhabit. So there's a lot of heavy breathing but not much exertion. A lot of noise, but not much grip.
Finally, if I can square the circle, let me voice my admiration and respect for Adam Broinowski, who has taken a beating from many of us -- myself included -- but remains cool-headed in the face of strong criticism, and remains passionately committed to theatre which engages with ideas. The "juice" of theatre. He posted a comment, a few hours ago, here.

In it, he argues that the kind of criticism Know No Cure received "effectively [reduced] the work to degrees of consumable satisfaction."

He concludes: "This disappointing denial of the political imagination flattens the potential theatre has to challenge an audience in urgent times."

UPDATE: I got off my numb behind and tracked down a couple of of those quotations...

Here's "our man in berlin" Daniel:
Chris Boyd and Adam Cass were like a two insulting, attack-minded middleweights. Great combinations, the odd rabbit-punch...offense could have been taken but that would be like "The Man" Mundine complaining about Kessler's handy sharp left; a damp squib, a less-entertaining, or enlightening option for the punters.

And here's Adam Cass, himself, commenting at Theatre Notes:
I acknowledge my verbal jousting with Chris Boyd - me accusing him of gloating; him calling me a dick, etc... but we both got around to saying what we wanted to say, prepared to at least hear the opposing view out.
I might give Cass the last word...
We all need to keep talking about this, I think. It's about time.
We do. It is.

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Blogger Alison Croggon said...

One of the fun parts of theatre reviewing is how you don't have any friends.

Only joking. I'm sure I have a couple.

All too true on Ben. He scores the hard core avant garde almost every time, and most of the time he really likes it. And he loved Homebody/Kabul, all three and a half hours of it.

(My children? Too "polite" to disagree with me? This is a world I neither know nor understand... )

In this case, the boy himself was cool on the play. And yes, I was fascinated. I quite understand why some people might find it hard going, but I respectfuly disagree on the writing...abstract, yes, but certainly writing for actors and for theatre.

10:29 AM  

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