Monday, July 21, 2008

Bell Shakespeare: Hamlet (Melbourne, 2008)

Bell Shakespeare had a crack at Macbeth in 1994. In the production, the weird sisters were very weird indeed. They weren't witches, in fact. They were from outer space. And, dammit, it worked! Does anyone remember the old Eunos TV commercials? That's what their cossies were like. Plus utility belts and Cyberman headgear. They ran around with syringes. (Girls' germs an' all that.)

I had to pitch my reviews, way back when, to my editor in Sydney. I found myself in the ignominious position of having to tell RJ that I enjoyed the production but couldn't put my finger on why, precisely. He was inexplicably delighted by this confession and promptly commissioned the review. (If I can find it... and it's not too humiliating... I'll put it up somewhere.)

I had a vaguely similar reaction to the Bell production of Hamlet, Friday. Apart from Horatio (in the opening scenes) and Ophelia (in the latter half of the play) the acting was pretty bloody undistinguished. Hamlet (Brendan Cowell) in particular was constantly off the beat. I'm not (just) talking verse, here, I mean the beat of the meaning. Given that this production has already done five weeks at the opera house, this is as good as it gets...

If it had been the premiere performance, I would have assumed there was still a way to go. Having said that, the last Bell production of Hamlet, in 2003, was at its best at the Opera House when it opened. It was looser by the time it made it to Melbourne. (If you're keen, you can read my AFR review of the Sydney premiere and my Herald Sun review of the Melbourne season.)

The cuts to the play (more than an hour by my reckoning) were harsh. Inconsistent too. But, hey, I'm not a Nazi when it comes to the language, either. I don't mind 'porpentine' updated to 'porcupine'. I can live with it.

Other niggling little changes puzzed me, I have to say. I'm guessing that there must be some new scholarship justifying changing one of the most famous quotations in the history of the English language... Especially cos Brendan Cowell said the 'wrong' word so emphatically!
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in OUR philosophy.
(Me niggling? Are you kidding?)

But, hell, it was a pretty good night out. So, what? I liked the set? Sarah Blasko's songs? (The show opens with Blasko crooning one of Ophelia's mad little ditties.) The sound? The lights?

I did love the three-storey spiral staircase, corkscrewing from the sky, like a double helix of metal DNA. I liked the vertical crypt, OP. I thought the ghost was admirably gruesome.

I didn't mind the players being cut more or less completely... though this did really fuck the "the play's the thing" bit. At least they could have done it as a dumb show... Here, it's a barely comprehensible song -- Blasko in the wrong register -- with percussion provided by... a tap dancer. (LOL)

Cowell has an oily-haired charm, I guess. A bit Michael Hutchence. And he sticks resolutely to his blokey register, a la Gluteus Maximus from Spartacus. You know, what's his name... The bloke Sharon Stone took a shine to, professionally speaking. Mister Romper Stomper. (It's 4:39 as I type, I've got an excuse for vagueness.) [Crowe Magnon Russell, he remembers, belatedly.]

Barry Otto -- looking for all the world like Quentin Crisp -- is an overly effete Polonius. I'm sure he did what he was told, but the choice weakens the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played as ridiculous halfwit clowns.

I had better stop now, before I talk myself out of liking the thing.

Hamlet. Bell Shakespeare. Directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Fiona Crombie. Lighting design by Nick Schlieper. Music composed and performed by Sarah Blasko. Sound design by Stefan Gregory. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, until August 2.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

I Love You, Bro by Adam J. A. Cass

If you have a couple of hours (and the princely sum of fifteen bucks) spare on Monday or Tuesday evening, and you can get to the Carlton Courthouse, you have two last chances to see Adam Cass's play I love you, bro before it heads to Edinburgh.

After the jump, my review of its premiere at the 2007 Melbourne Fringe Festival...

In the 45 years since A Clockwork Orange was published, countless authors and playwrights have had a crack at making their own language -- their own 'nadsat' -- with varying degrees of success. Or, more accurately, varying degrees of failure.

Best of the local attempts in the last 20 years was a play called Last Chance Gas by Steve Taylor and Kevin Densley, which had a scraggy but playful pidgin English for a post-apocalypse world.

The language Anthony Burgess put into the mouths of Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange was a brilliant mix of new and old words together with a fair smattering of Russian.

Adam Cass joins the short shortlist of successful attempts with his new play I Love You, Bro. The language spoken by fourteen year-old Johnny comes straight from the chatrooms: stuff we're more used to reading than hearing.

The tale Johnny tells is based on a bizarre true story from Manchester in which a geeky and neglected loner spins yarn after yarn to ensnare an older boy he desperately wants as a friend.

He is straight, he tells us, and so is the "golden boy" he falls in love with... his "first true friend." So Johnny pretends to be Jess, an imaginary half-sister from out of town. The lies accumulate and then take on lives of their own.

The plot -- and this is a simplified version of what really unfolded in 2003 -- had audiences gasping with a mix of horror and disbelief. Gasping, too, because of the sheer plausibility of the stories and the perfection of the deception.

Despite the age and cultural differences, Cass relates to Johnny. Johnny, in his way, is the perfect playwright... creating characters that he loses control over.

Despite the limitations of the chatroom slang, there's a real poetry in Cass's script.

Ash Flanders doesn't miss a beat reciting it. (And it's a huge and complex piece for a single actor on a bare stage.) Flanders delivers it with a creepy simplicity. There is further to go with the character, it could be pulled back even further, but Flanders is well on the way to nailing it.

Don't miss this.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Dancehouse: Only Leone (Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah)

Q. Is it an admission of defeat if the best moments in your dance work are those in which you don't move at all?
A. No.

I remember a session at a Green Mill Dance Project (Melbourne's Festival of Choreography and Dance) in the mid 1990s in which a dance maker told the few hundred people in the Merlyn Theatre that dance need not involve movement. This provoked more than a smattering of applause and more than a smattering of consternation.

The speaker, I feel sure, meant The Dance Thang in a John Cage kinda way. You know: everything is dance, in its own way. (Feel free to sing along, hippies!)

What Phoebe Robinson does (or rather did... I went to the last of four performances) is different.

Promotional image by Amory Culvenor

I feel like I want to create some kind of simple taxonomy of dance. Break it up into species or character sets or something. But, for today, I'll divide it up into (1) dance that needs to be photographed to be understood (or better appreciated) -- and here I'm talking sharp, still images made with microsecond exposures that reveal the design of the bodies instant by instant -- and (2) dance that, ideally, should leave a trace. A smear through space. It could be recorded with the same camera, but using long shutter speeds. Upwards of half a second say.

I reckon I've seen way too much of the first kind... It makes for brilliant publicity images but (all too often) an oddly unsatisfying live experience. The second kind can be frustrating, too, cos it's not how we see.

I confess, when I heard Robinson's new piece was called Only Leone, I assumed it was some half-arse Roy Orbision pun. (Or, given Robinson's age, a Divinyls pun.) It turns out that the piece was inspired by the films of Sergio Leone. Apart from some clues (or cues) in the soundscape, that aspect might have wafted entirely over my head. Without any loss of appreciation.

This compact work, barely 25 minutes long, is the product of a residency at Dancehouse in North Carlton. It has two of the most haunting moments of non movement I can recall seeing in a dance work; moments I would have stretched out further, in fact, had I been an outside eye; moments I would have chosen to hit the pause button; to prolong.

In both, Robinson lies on her back. In the first, she lies with her feet towards us. She's in the middle of the (upstairs) performance space. The arrangement of slack limbs suggest sleep. It's breathtakingly intimate. Too intimate, even, for us to feel voyeuristic.

There's a paradox here. Perhaps it's the "invitation to look" of performance makes the moment intimate rather than voyeuristic. The 'still' reminded me, inevitably, of that Henson photograph in which a sleeping girl is watched by a boy. Vulture or protector? Angel or devil? We can't tell.

This is one occasion (a very rare occasion) when one would wish to be seated at floor level ringing the dancer. This is also an example of a Type 1 dance moment: the freeze frame.

In the second still, Robinson lies with her head towards us, on a diagonal. She's sprawled down the three stairs dividing the rear platform from the main performance space. It reminds me of a scene from a film. Not a Sergio Leone film, though! It's from The Lover. It's the scene where the 'Chinaman' (did he have a name? he's played by Tony Leung) fucks the girl (I believe Jane March is credited as The Young Girl) on the floor and down some shallow stairs.

Here, though, Robinson looks dead. Not asleep. Not exhausted with passion.

It's as if the choreography that preceded and separated these moments was designed to set up these tableaux. In which case, it succeeded.

I reckon I've only seen Robinson dance on a handful of occasions in the five years (ish) since her pro debut. Certainly I could count the times on my fingers. She's an impressive performer with a cool, almost boyish air. And dance makers tend to put her in trousers. (Dresses look wrong on her.) (Funnily enough, now that I come to write this, I reckon she'd probably look okay in a tutu!!) She puts herself in light shorts. Like shortie pyjamas or Bermuda shorts. With side pockets.

Writing in The Age, Jo Roberts called Robinson diminutive. Odd choice of words. To me, she's rangy. Slim-limbed, but with defined muscle. Toned. Strong. Certainly not short.

Days after seeing her work, I can hardly bring a single move to mind. Just those frozen frames. Lighting states. Not so much 'still life' as Life Stilled.

In addition to those frozen frames, there is a single theatrical gesture. If that's the right word. Two thirds of the way through the piece, Robinson stepped right up and danced within a metre of the front row of seats. The crossbeam lighting is behind her. She's in our light. The twilight of the audience.

It's another of those moments of almost shocking intimacy. (Even for me in the middle row.) It reminds me of another performance in this building. Years ago. Downstairs. I'm guessing ten years back. In it, a dancer blindly groped her way forward towards the audience. Arms outstretched. Since it was me she was about to collide with, I took the proffered hand. She seizes it like a life line. Like she's had an electric shock.

Now, you might reasonably assume that my judgement on this has been skewed by my direct involvement, but her response rates as some of the most extraordinary method acting I've ever had the privilege to see, let alone see up close. (Anyone know who that dancer was? It was a group piece and I couldn't work out who was who.) Bizarre thing is, the only comparison I can think to make is with the opening credits of recent series of Charmed in which Alyssa Milano has one of her touch-premonition-vision thingies. (God, it's just occurred to me... she played Phoebe Halliwell, no? LOL!)

Strictly speaking, Robinson didn't violate the "fourth wall". But she did draw attention to the gulf between dancer and watcher. Five metres might as well be fifty.

Maybe that's the point. And it's a filmic one. What she was doing needed to be writ large. In which case, she might need the mentoring of Sandra Parker, a dance maker capable of vast intimacies.

Only Leone, a dance solo. Choreographed and performed by Phoebe Robinson. Produced and presented by Dancehouse through its Housemate Residency Program. Sound design by Sheldon King and Felicity Mangan. Lighting by Adam Hardy, with Ben Cobham of Bluebottle. July 2008.

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