Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Pleasure Principle by Alfie Scalia. Ignite The Dark Jazz Dance Theatre Company.

Before the lights finally dimmed in the main space at Gasworks last night, twenty minutes late, I mumbled something like “even bad dance is tolerable” -- i.e. in a way that bad theatre isn’t. Funny, I really should have heard a cock crowing. Because, Virginia, there is bad dance. Just as there is bad pizza and bad sex.

Exhibit A: Ignite the Dark’s The Pleasure Principle. If you’re going, brace yourselves. It is the most appallingly sexist, unreconstructed, teen boy masturbatory fantasy I've ever had the misfortune to endure. (Well, until interval.)

Seriously, it makes the video for Hot For Teacher look like a work of great sophistication and irony. It makes most booty-shaking rapper videos look vaguely feminist.

Despite the fact that every single woman on the stage is absolutely gagging for it -- in a nine girls for every boy kinda way -- the show still begins with a rape. Macho, bare-chested, smoking guy’s attitude? Hell, I don't want consent. What a guy.

A couple of minutes later, a man shops for a bride. You can guess, I imagine, what parts of the female anatomy were used as a card swipe. (She licks the card provocatively first.) There’s also stylised fucking on an office desk while Madonna asks us to justify our love. And another naff fantasy in which a male teacher fronts an all-girl class.

Another high point is the use of Paula Cole’s song Feelin’ Love. You know the one: “You make me feel like a candy apple all red and horny. You make me feel like I want to be dumb blonde.”

Jordan Vincent assures me that an inflatable doll appears in the second half. I believe she was suffering more than me. (And committed to stay to the end. Looking forward to her review in tomorrow’s Age.)

I tried really hard to focus on the dance (disciplined, committed, occasionally dynamic) and the choreography (banal, repetitive, dinky, with an emphasis on hair lashing) and the quality of the costume design (rather than its all-round sluttiness) but I was too busy plotting an exit route from the auditorium.

Alfie Scalia, the choreographer, and her director Daniel Ryan, use a quotation from The Picture of Dorian Gray as an epigraph: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”

Me? I’d quote Blake instead of the fictional Lord Henry: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

And this show is one infant I would have murdered, not nursed.

You have until Saturday to miss it.

The Pleasure Principle by Alfie Scalia. Directed by Daniel Ryan. Ignite The Dark Jazz Dance Theatre Company. Gasworks Theatre.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Melbourne Theatre Company: Queen Lear, adapted and directed by Rachel McDonald

For the record, here are my two reviews of Queen Lear. One was a "first response" piece for the news pages, which was on-line a little after 1:30 on Friday morning, a few hours after the curtain, the second (after the jump) is a more considered review published in yesterday's print edition of The Australian. They're not very bloggy, but there has been a fair bit of interest in the play and these particular reviews...

It’s difficult to find a kind word for this “cheerless, dark and deadly” production of Lear. Many of its individual assets turn out to be liabilities when combined. The stylish set, with chains spilling from the flies like plaited metal vines, is so spacious that cast members need to be amplified to be heard, even in a modern mid-sized theatre.

The decision to make The Fool into a manifestation of Lear’s own madness -- voices in the monarch’s head -- is an appealing one, but the chipmunk execution is amateurish.

With a couple of notable exceptions -- Robyn Nevin, Robert Menzies and Greg Stone head a short list -- the verse and meaning of the play are massacred. If you’re unfamiliar with Lear, you might have a tough time keeping up, especially with the deletion of Cordelia’s suitors: the King of France and Duke of Burgundy.

Beyond heightening our consciousness of Lear’s poor judgement and lack of wisdom, surprisingly little is made of the key decision to turn King Lear into Queen Lear. Adelaide and Melbourne audiences have seen Nevin play Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, in the 1990s, we know she is skilled enough to play any role, including Lear as a man. The textual changes to accommodate the sex change of the monarch are slight, but the replacement of each and every ‘nuncle’ with ‘auntie’ is jarring.

Nevin plays Lear as a carousing tyrant in a rose red dress with a crown of Cruella de Vil hair. She inspires little sympathy -- the loyalty shown to her, if anything, is a cause for puzzlement -- and her descent into madness is more bathetic than pathetic. Lear’s slurring and mumbling might be justified, in context, but poetry is the loser in this rendering. Her voice, and the drama, are lost in the void.

Heaven’s vault should crack in a production of Lear, be it a traditional King Lear, a gender-reassigned Queen Lear or a plain old Mister Lear as Laurence Olivier styled Peter Brook’s great 1962 production at Stratford.

Lear is a cranky play with a vain and ridiculous old goat of a monarch and a trio of daughters who wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy tale. Cordelia is a dowryless Cinderella who marries well, Goneril and Regan are the wicked and manipulative step-sisters. They only fail because, finally, they turn their venomous fangs on themselves.

Lear is not a robust, point-and-shoot play. Great acting alone doesn’t guarantee success. (Its absence, however, is a deal-breaker.) A director needs a sure grip on the material and a vision, a strategy, a way of selling this grotesque tale to audiences.

Inevitably, by changing the patriarch to a matriarch, director and dramaturg Rachel McDonald heightens our awareness of gender roles in Lear. We note that temporal power is destined to flow to the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, the husbands of Lear’s elder daughters, rather than the daughters themselves, but that Goneril and Regan are powerful players and strategists in their own rights.

Regan is a co-conspirator with her husband Cornwall. Goneril, however, works solo. This production seeks to justify, or excuse, Goneril’s ‘unnatural’ power by placing her husband Albany in a wheelchair.

A traditional production of Lear can play out as a seizure of power from a dangerously foolish -- perhaps already senile -- king by his disenfranchised daughters. Here, though, it reads as payback on a bitchy, manipulative and prodigal mother by two daughters whose resentment is overripe. Something to offend every feminist.

It’s fair to say that this MTC production has a way to go before it hits its stride -- the first performance was one I would have happily abandoned at interval -- but this Lear has potentially fatal flaws in conception, direction, aspects of the design and in its acting. Its strengths are few and not significant enough to compensate for the flaws.

Robert Menzies, as the suicidally loyal Kent, is so good -- so passionate -- that he almost manages to persuade us that Lear is worthy of his love. Greg Stone is a persuasive as Albany, a little less so as the oily Oswald. Robyn Nevin’s performance in the title role is technically very good, and might work brilliantly on film or in a more intimate staging, but her coiled and centripetal energy rarely travels as far as the front row.

Instead of breaking our hearts, Queen Lear merely breaks our spirits.

Queen Lear. Direction and dramaturgy by Rachel McDonald. Set and costume design by Tracy Grant Lord. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti. Composition and sound design by Iain Grandage. Melbourne Theatre Company. At the Sumner Theatre. July 12. Season ends August 18.

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Big name, big blanket. Bangarra’s Terrain by Frances Rings.

My first glimpse of Lake Eyre (or Kati Thanda as the Arabana know it) was from 38,000 feet, as a youngie. It had been in flood for the better part of two years in the mid 70s -- supposedly the biggest flood in the last century or more -- and had been topped up by a spring downpour... enough rain to cut the road to Alice Springs.

Ella Havelka in Terrain (Photograph: Greg Barrett)

I didn’t know then that it was the lowest part of the continent. (15 metres below sea level, apparently. Who knew?!) But I sure as hell knew that the search for an inland sea (which had obsessed European explorers for decades) was well-and-truly on the money. This inland sea was even salty!

Now, I know to mistrust Wikipedia when it comes to some things Australian -- it took years to persuade a few ignorant and intractable editors that Brisbane is not in fact the nation’s biggest city, just the biggest city council -- so you should take the following factoid as salt-encrusted... Anyway, the ’pedia reckons that Lake Eyre, when full, is the 18th largest on the planet. I assume they’re calculating by area (almost 10,000 square km) rather than volume, but that’s not stated in the article. Let’s put it this way, it’s not the kind of lake you build a grand prix circuit around. It’s roughly five times larger than Port Phillip Bay. Again, in area. (Not that Port Phillip is all that deep, mind!)

The timing of Bangarra’s new show, Terrain, which is inspired by the lake, is uncanny. It coincided, to the week, with a Federal Court ruling giving the Arabana non-exclusive Native Title to Lake Eyre and its surrounds -- approximately 69,000 square kilometers -- ending an action begun 14 years ago.

Just days before the first performance of Terrain in Melbourne, around 300 Arabana people gathered under a marquee at Finniss Springs Mission not far from the lake to hear Federal Court judge Paul Finn’s ruling.

Frances Rings’ mob, the Kokatha, hail from South Australia. Roxby Downs territory, south of Lake Eyre, so near neighbours to the Arabana. While Rings is certainly responding to the look of the land, its plants and animals, her new work for Bangarra, Terrain, uses the boom and bust cycle of the lake as a metaphor for the connection to land that indigenous peoples have. It’s never broken, she says. It can lie dormant for years then spring back to life.

But that’s just one axis in a multidimensional work that, like a lot of dance, is hugely reduced, and simplified, when translated into words.

My official review of Terrain was published in Monday’s Australian. It’s on-line, here.

Terrain by Frances Rings. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, June 29 & 30. Tickets: $70 & $85. Family: $160. Bookings and 1300 182 183. Season ends July 7.

Also Sydney Opera House, July 18-August 18; IPAC, Wollongong, August 24-25; Adelaide Festival Centre, August 29-September 1; Canberra Theatre Centre, September 13-15 and QPAC, Brisbane, October 3-7.