Monday, October 18, 2010

Daniel Keene’s Life Without Me and Jack Charles V The Crown

Gosh, doesn’t this look weird! And, hey, dya think the subbies are takin’ the piss outa me?

My review of Daniel Keene’s play Life Without Me is on-line, here.

After the jump, my Herald Sun review of Jack Charles V The Crown.

“Clay is land,” Jack Charles tells us. “We belong to the land.”

He means all of us.

Clay is the brilliant driving metaphor of his show, and a sustaining metaphor of Charles’ own life. This thieving, heroin-shooting actor -- taken from his mother soon after his birth in 1943 -- discovered pottery in one of his many stints behind bars.

Jack’s a natural. He throws a few pieces in the course of his seventy-minute story. The deftly-shaped pieces are unfired... rather like the man: still fragile and malleable, even at the age of 67.

Jack Charles (photo: supplied)

He tells us of a creation myth from the Kulin nation in which life is breathed into two clay figures, just as Adam is brought to life by the god of the old testament.

This is an earthy tale of survival, shaped with easy skill by co-writer John Romeril and director Rachael Maza Long. It poses many more questions than it answers and so we're sent out into the night wondering about justice, identity and addiction.

Jack Charles V The Crown could do with a bit of a glaze, but the shape is right and it invites us to fire up our minds to finish it off by ourselves.

Jack Charles V The Crown. Based on the life of Uncle Jack Charles and spoken in his own words. Co-written with John Romeril. Dramaturgy by John Romeril. Script consultancy by Melanie Beddie. Set and costume design by Emily Barrie. Lighting design by Danny Pettingill. Musical direction by Nigel MacLean. AV design by Peter Worland. Ilbijerri Theatre Company for the Melbourne Festival. Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, Tuesday October 12.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dude dance: Adapting for Distortion & Haptic by Hiroaki Umeda

Guest post by Jana Perkovic

Dude dance, or boy-choreography. The foyer discussion turned into an animated bitch fight about whether once we conclude that all men tend toward autism (as Simon Baron-Cohen argues, and so did some foyer men), this excuses male choreographers from engaging with emotion.

Adapting for Distortion (photograph by Alex)

I expected a work in the general category of Mortal Engine, and thought it was even closer to it than just generally close. All possible interpretations of Adapting for Distortion as metaphors for how contemporary technology eats people are as possible as they are simplistic: how innovative and progressive to produce the very object of purported critique (?!).

Haptic (photograph: Bertrand Baudry)

It was not the quality of the execution, but the thinness of it, that put off the female part of the foyer.

During the first part of A for D, I remember thinking: ‘well, I’m sure there are complex mathematical concepts behind the realisation of this work, but I don’t care because it’s just so damn pretty’. During the second half, I was thinking: ‘well, I don’t care how good-looking this light-and-sound machine is, there is no soul here’. Pay attention: not ‘heart’. It was not emotion that was missing, it was depth.

Dude Dance is technological, not emotional, by default. Hence Simon B-C: it’s Asperger’s choreography. I’ve seen in the work of other exponents of Dude Dance attempts to address this lack by tacking sentiment onto it (see Mortal Engine for the most crystalline example), and the whole work collapsing into a heap, now guilty both of heartlessness and sentimentality. However, the most interesting (to me) proponent of Dude Dance, Wayne McGregor, puts together works that are as emotionally illiterate as they are in every sense sublime; if anything, the other-worldliness of McGregor’s concepts universalises his dances into something like philosophy on slender legs.

I am in no doubt that Hiroaki Umeda aspires to making philosophy on slender legs too; alas, his work is still closer to a video game.

Hiroaki Umeda in Haptic (photograph: Shin Yamagata)

Parenthesis: I loved Haptic up until the moment another foyer guy insisted that for him it had all the qualities of early Super Mario. Until that point, Haptic was a colourful dance macaron of sorts: much less brutal than A for D, its combinations of complementary colours and a moving man creating intensely hallucionatory effects in one’s mind. A pink man dancing behind the black man; that sort of thing. Until the Super Mario point, I was deeply taken with the experience and, to the extent to which the judgement of a girl can override a boy’s keen-eyed identification with Umeda’s preoccupations, I would argue it is a subtle, beautiful and rich work.

But I came out feeling an uncanny urge to watch some Bill Viola. Inappropriate and unfair as this may be, Umeda’s diptych seemed to have tickled just the right part of me. By putting on a hi-tech binge of sub-emotional effect, which buzzes but also fizzes away, it seems to provoke a need for a hi-tech sub-emotional experience that hits you in the gut instead. It was as if we came out on a dubious, nervous high, and needed to validate it with a satisfying come-down.

cross-posted at Guerrilla Semiotics

Adapting for Distortion and Haptic. Choreographed and performed by Hiroaki Umeda. Sound and lighting by S20 with Bertrand Baudry (Adapting for Distortion) and Hervé Villechenoux (Haptic). Melbourne Festival. Merlyn Theatre, Thursday October 14. Season ends Sunday October 17.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thomas Adès and Calder Quartet

What is it about pianists that makes them so bloody memorable? Off the top of my head, I can name just one cello soloist that rocked my world: Pieter Wispelwey, who played his instrument like a ventriloquist... even moving his lips. One or two brilliant woodwind musicians spring to mind, a harpist, even a trombone soloist... though if you've ever seen Christian Lindberg play live, you will never forget him! I'd be struggling to name any but the most obvious violinists. (The Bovver Boy is unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.)

But when it comes to the piano, I could reel off my top ten indelible concert experiences without pausing for breath. Brilliant artists and/or brilliant performances. Cecile Licad stamping her way through Beethoven's third piano concerto is the first of those memories. Melvyn Tan (the man who decoded Beethoven's bagatelles for us by playing them on the Broadwood fortepiano that the composer owned at the time they were written) transmitting Chopin's preludes with his face is one of the more recent memories. Jorge Bolet (like Rudolf Serkin, a pianist from another era) playing Liszt like an old priest, with those massive hands of his, is another ancient-but-not-faded memory. Dimitris Sgouros was at the other end of the age scale. Young and old. All prodigies. And let's not forget the stylish and incomparable Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Debussy. Playing anything. God. The ravishment.

To that list, I now have to add Thomas Adès. Hands like catcher's mitts. Think the "man's hands" ep. of Seinfeld, only much much bigger. I'm not an enormous fan of his music. More curious than committed. But the opportunity to see Adès playing his own piano quintet was incentive enough to get me to the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday.

Thomas Adès

As it happens, the quintet, the backmarker in the concert, was something of an anticlimax. But the climaxes were -- ah -- early and often.

The Calder played Adès's Arcadiana first up. Seven movements for string quartet. The first left me nauseous. It's one of those "classical music will eat itself" compositions in which centuries of Romantic and Classical music are gobbled down and chundered up... and the audience has the 'pleasure' of rooting through the chuck looking for bits of carrot and tomato skins that we recognise.

From there, though, the rest of the work is plain sailing. Better than plain sailing. It's as if the musicians left their rosin at home knowing the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall would carry their whisper music to the back row. Which, of course, it did.

Calder Quartet

Adès took the place of Calder Quartet for the remainder of the first half of the concert. Clumsily, but endearingly, he led by explaining that all of his music is other people's music. He then played Darknesse Visible, his solo piano take on John Dowland's 17th century lute song 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell'.

Whereas the Calder had taken us sailing into silence, Adès exploited both the dynamic limits of his piano and the dynamic limits of the recital hall. He floated left pedal notes so soft, it was as if they had drifted in, like Spring mist over Albert Park lake. He crashed other notes so stridently, one feared for the mechanism of the Steinway. (A tuner worked frantically through interval!)

It was so much more than mere emo sturm und drang. It was riveting. Spectacular. Absolutely unforgettable.

He backed up, after interval, with some fascinating solo pieces by Stravinsky and Nancarrow -- absurdly difficult pianola works which fit very nicely with Stifter's Dinge happening a block or two further south of the Yarra -- before Calder Quartet retook the stage to perform the piano quintet with its composer.

But, for me, the metaphorical cigarettes were smoked at half time! The rest was merely afterplay.

See also Clive O'Connell's excellent review, here. (He heard Martinu, I heard Bartók.)

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Melbourne Festival: The Blue Dragon

Cameron Woodhead's review of The Blue Dragon is on-line at The Age web site, here, and I find I pretty much agree with the major points he makes.

But what intrigues me is how a four star rating can be awarded a show in which "the narrative remains superficial", the plot "resembles [that of] a middlebrow midlife crisis novel", the characters "leave faint impressions" and where the show, like the protagonist Pierre, is "infected by orientalism" and might leave us "undernourished"... even the Chinese dance is "problematic".

I quite agree!

Henri Chassé contemplates... bathwater sans baby

Oh, and "the performers develop a static, exaggerated style that rarely moves beyond caricature." Touché again.

Cameron, oh Cameron... has your review been nobbled? I know (via Twitter) Michelle Griffin loved The Blue Dragon, and that Michael Shmith (IRL) adored it too... But, gasp, would they? Could they?

Me? I gave it a solid two outa five. My date slept quietly.

Robert Lepage and his Ex Machina company have been regulars on the festival circuit since the 1990s. For good reason. He is a brilliant story teller and actor, and an ingenious director of theatre, opera and more recently film. We’ve seen his one-person shows and his hardcore operas (Bartok and Schoenberg) as well as his marathon soap operas. His last work in Australia, Lipsynch, had five intervals and ran from early afternoon deep into the night. Like many of his works, it spanned generations and continents. It was gripping and deeply moving.

In comparison, The Blue Dragon (created the year after Lipsynch) is a mediocre work, a banal tale badly told. It’s Madame Butterfly set in a booming modern China instead of war-torn Japan. The contemporary twist is certainly topical -- the intersection of China’s one-child-per-couple policy and the West’s recent obsession with the adoption of children from non-Western countries -- but the treatment is superficial and the acting is soulless and half-hearted.

Five-star orientalism: Tai Wei Foo in The Blue Dragon

The star of this show, really, is Michel Gauthier’s set which morphs from the inside of a plane to a Shanghai loft to a railway station in the blink of an eye. What a shame the projected translations (the play is performed in French, Mandarin and English) on opening night weren’t anywhere near as well honed.

A slightly shortened version of this review appears in The Herald Sun today.

The Blue Dragon. Written by Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud. Produced by Ex Machina. Directed by Robert Lepage. Set design by Michel Gauthier. Sound design by Jean-Sébastien Côté. Lighting design by Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun. Costume design by François St-Aubin. Projection design by David Leclerc. Choreographed by Tai Wei Foo. Performed by Henri Chassé, Marie Michaud and Tai Wei Foo.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Jumping the gun: Ranters Theatre’s Intimacy and Affection

Okay, so the 2010 Melbourne Festival doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, but jumping the gun this evening is the Malthouse with Ranters’ latest show Intimacy. It’s another collaboration between Adriano and Raimondo Cortese, this time with Adriano billed as directing the show -- and devising it with the cast -- and Raimondo providing the text. (Now there’s a loaded word! I assume they mean ‘text’ as opposed to ‘performance text’.)

It’s heretical, I know, but I wasn’t a great fan of the much lauded Holiday, Ranters’ last blockbuster, which the Malthouse gave a second life. But -- as I explain below -- I was happy to sit back and see what developed next from this adventurous, restless, intriguing company.

In winter last year, the next evolutionary step in the Cortese collaboration had an early showing. To the Paul Lum/Patrick Moffatt mix of Holiday, Ranters announced it was adding Heather Bolton. For anyone familiar with Bolton’s work, the mere mention of her name was enough to light up the mind. What a perfect choice. That expectant look she has perfected -- it seems to hold introversion and extraversion in perfect suspension -- would be a perfect addition to any sequel.

As it happens, Bolton was a late scratching from the production (which was entitled Affection) for personal reasons. Beth Buchanan -- no stranger to the work of the Corteses -- filled in, script in hand. And she lounged about, very much at home, as if the script were a magazine to leaf through while hangin’ with friends.

Intimacy (the play that opens tonight) reunites Buchanan, Lum and Moffatt. I’ve gotta say, I can’t wait.

After the jump is my review of Affection.

Affection by Ranters Theatre. FULL TILT at the Arts Centre. Black Box, until July 11, 2009.

What a journey Raimondo Cortese has had as a writer for the stage. His very earliest pieces were loose baggy monsters, novels turned into plays. A Shakespearean phase, lush and erotic, followed. Then came the pointillism, around the time of St Kilda Tales, where dialogue would come in tiny flashes, lit up and snuffed out.

But each step he has taken away from the dazzling, heightened, poetic language of, say, Lucrecia and Cesare (1994) has been a step towards something. I want to call it ‘verismo’ but it’s the ‘truth’ of literature (like Zola) rather than the potboiling melodrama of Italian opera. The language has become more and more natural -- indistinguishable from conversations we might eavesdrop on -- but there are blueprints... a clear, if hidden, structure. The dramatic ‘action’ has all but disappeared.

Cortese’s last play, Holiday, won rave reviews and a swag of awards. But, I’ve gotta say, it didn’t do it for me. Even on second viewing. (It was picked up by the Malthouse in its Tower Theatre program.) But I was happy to keep my mouth shut knowing that Cortese was off on a new tangent.

If Holiday was Cortese’s latest Big Bang, then this newest play, Affection, is the evolutionary step at which the dust starts to form into galaxies. There is a thematic coherence that Holiday singularly lacked. The sand’s just the same, but now we have castles instead of dunes.

Like Holiday, Affection stars Paul Lum and Patrick Moffatt, who (again) have random, ricocheting bursts of conversation broken up with longish silences and the odd ancient (and not so ancient) song, from Frere Jacques to the Ramones. Added to the mix, here, is a third variable, a young woman played by Beth Buchanan. She’s their flirtatious host, innocently offering food, kisses and the odd massage.

The character Lum plays (they’re all unnamed) sleeps on couches and has few possessions. He’s part way between adolescence and enlightenment, a kind of Po-Mo hobo. Just as he charms his new friends, they all charm us... with eye contact, big smiles and a winsome openness.

There’s a great deal of craft here, at every level, from acting and direction (Adriano Cortese) to the restless lighting design (Niklas Pajanti), but the effect is everything. And that, regrettably, is entirely indescribable. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

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