[2012155] The Caretaker

[2012155] The Caretaker

Liverpool Everyman Productions @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

8:00pm, Thu 22 Mar 2012

Wandering in to Her Majesty’s, I’m weary – sure, I’ve had a few decent nights of sleep now, and I’ve even been back at work a couple of days. But this is the last show of a bloody long year, and it marks the End of Something. As a result, it feels weighty to be walking into the theatre… significant.

But faced with writing about it? I’m struggling, to be honest. There’s a million-and-one actual reviews out there that analyse the production itself; there’s always Wikipedia for the plot summary (though this production squeezes the first two Acts together). So – as usual – I’ll stick with what I know: my reactions.

The set – the inside of a decrepit flat – is lush with decaying detail. As the three characters – the young and aggressive Mick, his older brother and more circumspect Aston, and the older tramp in Davies – struggle for the minuscule amount of power afforded through management of the flat, the tensions and tenuous truces between them are palpable. Pinter’s dialogue is, as many have suggested, superbly written, especially evident in the verbal battles between Davies (the manipulator) and Mick (who targets superiority through verbiage and threat of violence).

The environment of The Caretaker is bleak – Aston’s brain-damaging past relegates him to be both focussed and sadly confused, and the struggles that the men engage in seem momentous, but remain utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Davies’ moulding of the truth depending on the person to whom he’s speaking reeks of a shameful desperation; Aston’s soliloquy about his time in the asylum verges on hopelessly heartbreaking. But within this world lies little snippets of humour, both physical (the bag-passing tomfoolery early on) or buried within the script: the bucket hanging from the roof is a gorgeous touch, and Davies’ rant about sleeping in bed next to a gas stove (that’s not connected) is sublime. The use of repetition – and occasional hist of racism – in some of the dialogue takes some getting used to, though.

Jonathan Pryce was the big drawcard here: his mannerisms are divine, and there is no doubting that he is Davies when he’s on that stage. There’s something so wonderfully engaging with his performance that even the smallest of details – Davies absent-mindedly checking the pockets of any item of clothing he puts on – seems both important and yet utterly natural. Alan Cox’s portrayal of Aston is well-measured – the electro-shock therapy of his past has dulled the edges, and Cox plays the part with a glassy-eyed contemplation. Alex Hassell’s square-jawed Mick, on the other hand, has a suitable menace that is oddly contrasted by his quirky over-explanation: “You look like my father’s brother…”

It would be a brave person to say anything negative about the quality of The Caretaker: it really was a wonderful piece of theatre. A technical masterclass on all fronts – Christopher Morahan’s direction doesn’t put a foot wrong, and Eileen Diss’ set design is superb – that builds upon a wonderfully balanced play that manages to conjure emotions from all points of the compass… it really was an immensely satisfying production.

[2012145] Never Did Me Any Harm

[2012145] Never Did Me Any Harm

Force Majeure @ Space Theatre

2:00pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012

I look up and down the queue outside the Space Theatre when I arrive – its a far cry from the already stumbling hordes I encountered as I passed through Rundle Mall, with barely a skerrick of green to be seen. It’s a very sedate crowd, and I somehow get the feeling that many in the queue – like me – are happy, but weary.

Inside the Space a suburban backyard has been assembled: green grass, the back patio, a tree, a small shed. And within this comfortable environment, the cast of Force Majeure take a frank – and sometimes troubling – look at the roles and responsibilities of parents in raising their children. Whilst The Slap is most certainly in the background of this production, Never Did Me Any Harm casts a bit of a wider net… and uses some of the most intriguing theatrical trickery this year to deliver its neutral eye.

The opening dialogue seems overall to be quite even-handed, quite agenda-free, whilst presenting a wide range of opinions: voiceovers are used to provide conflicting opinions, with voices proclaiming “whack the kids!”, others crying “you should never strike your children”, and others again bluntly placing responsibility of the child on the parents. The audio is purposefully muddled, creating an air of confusion just in deciphering the content; it hints at the idea that we’re contemplating a grey area.

The cast play various sets of adult and their children, recurring characters creating scenes of domestic bliss – or conflict. It’s a bit jarring to see the adults acting as children, but after the initial encounters they become more acceptable, and we’re left to observe the way these children impact their families – though happiness and frustration and anger – as well as those outside the family unit. Curious, too, is the emphasis put on conflicts between family units: the internalised judging that occurs. But the production never seems to laud one approach as “right” – everyone appears capable of as many highs as lows.

And that desperate balancing act seeps into the wider production, too; there’s often the tangible threat of anger spilling out, of violence in the air – when someone is grabbed by the upper arm, the audience collectively holds its breath, and when the other arm is grabbed and the person is shaken, it’s deathly quiet. But when such a moment occurs, there always seems to be some humour just around the corner: for every threat of abuse, there’s two adults pretending to be kids on a billy cart smashing through a carefully constructed bucket obstacle. For every inadvertent whack of a child, there’s a backyard game that ends with a shoe thwacking the father figure in the head. And let’s not forget that Never Did Me Any Harm had some fragments of dance in it, too – the opening interactions of a mother/father seem to describe both the good times and bad through a quiet, introspective movement piece, while the dialogue of others carries on around them.

But the most impressive element of this production was the absolutely stunning lighting design; Geoff Cobham has surely outdone himself with some of the visual effects on display here. Early on, thin bars of light pick out the eyes of a man and a woman in an otherwise dark room; later, an autistic boy dances by himself in shadow, casting his “shadow” as light – an amazing effect. And the backyard is often overlaid with a grid of light, with the grid lines wavering whenever there’s unchecked anger in the air; at other times, the grid simply drifts, creating the illusion that the tree is moving, that the ground is undulating.

There doesn’t really seem to be a narrative to Never Did Me Any Harm as much as a series of somewhat related scenes; the performance ends with the characters sitting around at a social gathering discussing, in very honest terms, the “joys” (or not) of having children (or not). The variety of characters on display are all familiar – the married couple with kids, the single mother, the older man without kids, the guy who joyfully embraced parenthood but now frets about every potential mis-step, the woman who feels unsure about everything – those characters are me and my friends. And the nice thing about this production is that it shows a side of them, of their lives, that I don’t normally see… and doesn’t cast judgment. It’s a very thoughtful piece of work, beautifully produced.

[2012144] Dreamers – Michael Rother and Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe

[2012144] Dreamers – Michael Rother and Dieter Moebius and Hans Lampe

Michael Rother, Dieter Moebius, Hans Lampe, St. Vincent @ Barrio

7:00pm, Fri 16 Mar 2012

Despite my German background, krautrock has always been a bit of a novelty for me. But I’ve always recognised its importance as a precursor to industrial music, which is a genre I absolutely love. And when I saw this lineup in the Festival Guide, I recognised the names of Rother and Moebius… but couldn’t immediately connect them to any particular bands.

A bit of research yields the names Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia – okay, I’m more interested now… but not enough to commit.

So: I’m poking around the Festival site the day before this show, procrastinating over whether to actually buy a ticket; after all, it was probably a three-hour chunk of the schedule, and I could see a lot of other shows in three hours. But I’m procrastinating poking around anyway, when I suddenly spied something at the bottom of the page: “You may also enjoy… St. Vincent”.

And my internal monologue said: Yes… I most certainly do enjoy St. Vincent. How nice of you to bring St. Vincent up, Festival site. Why would you do so?

I click the link… and my internal monologue screamed ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod like a starstruck schoolgirl for a good ten minutes, during which time I’d managed to control myself enough to buy a ticket to the Dreamers session. My reasoning was sound: go to Barrio for the krautrock, stay for St. Vincent.

I arrive at Barrio a good half-hour early; I’m second in the queue, and I chat with the number one guy for ages about everything musical, swapping band stories and talking about great albums. When Barrio eventually opened its doors, there’s maybe a hundred people waiting; there’s no rush to the front, though, just a bunch of friendly mingling. I sit at the front of the little seated area and have a great chat with an older couple, again comparing musical notes that – because of our age difference – are incredibly interesting and challenging.

Dieter Moebius comes out to appreciative applause, waves without smiling, and stands at a small table of Equipment With Knobs. He twiddles a few knobs, a beat kicks in – a bit of a cheer goes up – and then Dieter drops the bass in… and it’s like being punched in the chest. After a couple of minutes, I spot an old Uni friend I haven’t seen for fifteen years; I stand up to join him and am surprised that Dieter’s subwoofer-laden tracks literally vibrate my canvas shorts.

Dieter Moebius: pants-vibratingly good.

After maybe half-an-hour, Dieter leaves; people start scurrying about the stage setting gear up. Eventually Hans Lampe appears, and responds to the crowd’s cheer with a cheery grin; he sits behind his electronic drum kit, puts his headphones on, gives himself a sixteen beat count in, and starts drumming. And then he holds that beat for the best part of fifteen minutes, with maybe a three-beat flourish every minute or so. Dieter reappears and returns to his knob-twiddling without recognition of the crowd; then Michael Rother comes out to a roar, waves, picks up his guitar, and starts meshing his tones in with the rhythms of the other two.

It may sound like a negative to say that every track sounded the same: Hans gives himself a long count in, then lays down the beat; Dieter then creates a wobbly bass underpinning, twiddling over many bars until a groove emerges, and Rother uses guitar (or, occasionally, keys) to create texture. Hold the beat for at least ten minutes, then reverse the buildup. Yes, they played Neu!’s most recognisable track, Hallogallo – listen to that, and stretch it out for ninety minutes.

That’s it. That’s their entire performance. And no-one was complaining; this is what we turned up to see. This was, most certainly, krautrock.

And it was brilliant.

Maybe I was swayed by their personalities; Hans always looked like he was amazed to be there. Even when he was waiting to come onstage he had a smile on his face, and he always removed his headphones to hear the audience applause. Dieter, on the other hand, captured every stereotype of the serious artiste, standing very straight and twiddling knobs with no emotion crossing his face. Rother was awesome, controlling the mood of all pieces with his guitar; he, too, looked amazed to be there, but when he was coagulating their pieces together he was the epitome of focus.

But, when the Germans left the stage – Dieter still yet to crack a smile – the evening was only half-over for me; I still wanted to bask in St. Vincent’s glory.

I held my spot on the fence, which happened to be directly in front of where Annie Clark – who essentially is St. Vincent, especially in a studio sense – eventually played. And when Annie and her band (drummer with an odd double-kick, double-snare, double-hi-hat setup, a young lass on a Moog playing basslines and backing vocals; and a keyboard player) appeared, I was enchanted from the get-go; whilst the crowd seemed most familiar with one of my least favourite songs – Cruel – I was most interested in earlier material: the stunning Marrow. The bludgeoning ascension of Black Rainbow. And I was beyond happy with that.

But then came the encore. And, more specifically, Your Lips Are Red.

Now, that song has always been a little bit special to me – it’s blunt and cold and abrasive up front, but dissolves into the sweetest “your skin’s so fair it’s not fair / you remind me of city graffiti” refrain at the end that I just well up with tears. So to be standing mere metres from Annie when she moulded that gorgeous ending out of noise tonight… well, that was a proper teary emotional moment.

Yep, that was a bloody good evening. One of the best.

[2012141] Water Stains on the Wall

[2012141] Water Stains on the Wall

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan @ Dunstan Playhouse

8:30pm, Thu 15 Mar 2012

The very first year I ever put some effort into getting out-and-about during these Festival things, I kept a rudimentary spreadsheet of stuff that I saw that year because… well, that’s how my head works. Just a list of dates, times, shows, and a one-or-two word summary of my impressions.

I went digging through my digital archives to find that spreadsheet, and it lists sixty-one shows that I saw that year… which surprised me somewhat (I thought it was half-a-dozen lower). But that’s beside the point; the whole reason I went searching is because, on March 6 1998, I saw a performance called Songs of the Wanderers – and my one-word recollection of that piece was “Incredible”.

(March 6 1998 turned out to be a pretty bloody good day of Festivalling: Salamandrar, Every Night a Wedding, Songs of the Wanderers, and The Waste Land were Great, Inspiring, Incredible, and Fucking incredible, respectively.)

And that little back-story is relevant now because the company that delivered Songs of the Wanderers – Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre – is behind this ethereally-advertised production of Water Stains on the Wall.

When the curtain lifts we are presented with a very heavily raked white stage floor, upon which stand seventeen of the Cloud Gate dancers – ten women, seven men, all wearing the same white, flowing, cloud-like leggings; the men are bare-chested, the women wear skin-coloured leotards. They hold their initial formation and start moving almost imperceptibly forward; a slight sway develops in the group as a whole, and it’s like we’re watching waves lapping at the beach; the movement is so light and gentle and mesmerising.

Suddenly one man starts swaying in the opposite direction to the rest of the group; his movement seems to affect others nearby, and soon the counter-movement grows, capturing more dancers in its wake. The group soon dissolves into an organically chaotic display, wherein individuals or pairs or larger groups would flow across the stage, whilst others would spiral outwards… it’s intoxicating to watch, though the fact that the dancers don’t recognise each other at all – not even a knowing glance – is a little disconcerting.

Throughout the performance, the stage has images of black, drifting clouds projected upon it; the white floor catches these images beautifully, but it’s the way that the dancers’ leggings drift in and out of the projection that really catches the eye. When the clouds are replaced with water marks, the dance shifts subtly, but maintains its organic feel.

Oh yes, Water Stains on the Wall was an incredible performance, and would have been an almost enveloping experience… were it not for the audience. Like the woman in the front row whose phone rang as soon as the lights dropped. I could see her fumble with the phone, her face bathed in light, as she rejected the call… but rather than put the phone on silent or – heaven forbid – turn it off, she let it ring again as the curtain was raised, and again when she had a troupe of dancers (heroically) holding their pose three metres in front of her.

And at that moment, I felt ashamed – because this woman represented this audience; she represented me.

She was eventually escorted out – by Festival Centre staff or saviour punter, I don’t know – but I couldn’t believe the fact that was was let back in a couple of minutes later. In her absence, the rest of the audience managed to follow her sterling lead and produced a cacophony of coughing… it was like a minute-of-silence at an unruly high school.

But… happy thoughts. Happy thoughts.

Cloud Gate dancers? Amazing. Lin Hwai-Min’s choreography? Breathtaking.

[2012138] A Streetcar

[2012138] A Streetcar

Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe @ Festival Theatre

8:00pm, Wed 14 Mar 2012

Ever since my mistake earlier in the year, I’ve been doing the Right Thing and turning my phone off during performances. As I’m leaving the previous show, I turn the phone back on to receive a flurry of increasingly agitated messages from my Buddy for A Streetcar. My plans for a comfortable migration to the Festival Theatre get dismissed; I grab the first cab I can. When we meet, it’s an emotional mauling; she elects to stay for the performance, but we’re both pretty frayed and fragile as the house lights drop.

It’s a challenging opening as the much-vaunted Isabella Huppert is spotlit and pulls faces, weeps, and splutters her lines in what feels like a full-frontal assault… but it’s hard to tell, because there’s clearly opening-night problems with the surtitles. They’re already a bit awkward for us down the front to see, but they’re clearly out of sync (with a mouse pointer evident on one side of the screen), poorly paced (two full lines of text flitting by in half-a-second), and – worst of all – very poorly contrasted.

My Buddy whispers in my ear: “I can’t read anything. This isn’t working.” She leaves, and the fractures open up a little wider.

I hold my ground.

What I subsequently sat through was allegedly based on A Streetcar Named Desire; my vague recollection of the play suggests that the plot is loosely followed, but a lot of the subtle tone was lost. Where class disparity was significant before, the modern setting makes that far less significant; whilst Stanley’s physical and emotional abuse of Stella is still present, it’s lost amidst the almost frigid delivery of those moments.

In retrospect, that was particularly odd: most other pivotal scenes seemed to receive special treatment by director Krzysztof Warlikowski – some unique staging, or some camera setup and projection – to give the scenes some added significance, some pop; but, as a result, character progression is given almost laid-back and lazy treatment. And there are the absolutely inexplicable production decisions: that song kicking in, volume and tone well in excess of anything else in the production. And that scrolling wall of incongruous text that covered the entire stage for five fucking minutes while a shit song was played…

In all fairness, there’s some really strong high-points in A Streetcar: the staging is fantastic, with huge chunks of the set travelling back and forth between scenes, with cameras and translucent screens forming spaces and abstractions that are really quite ingenious. Huppert deserves all the plaudits that preceded her performance; after the foreshadowing opener, Blanche’s mental decline is wonderfully mapped out. But the odd treatment of the source material, in conjunction with the cold detached delivery and surtitle issues, had me walking away from the Festival Theatre very… well, empty. Disappointed.

And I’m pretty sure my malaise wasn’t entirely due to the emotional fracas beforehand; this was billed as a flagship show, but it failed to deliver a coherent experience.

[2012136] The Ham Funeral

[2012136] The Ham Funeral

State Theatre Company of South Australia @ Odeon Theatre

11:00am, Wed 14 Mar 2012

There’s nothing like dragging your arse out of bed at (comparatively) silly o’clock in the morning and wandering down The Parade having a progressive breakfast as you go: OJ at one place, heart-starter espresso at another, something more substantial around the corner from The Odeon. By the time I get there for this (retrospectively) ill-advised matinée, I’m vaguely awake; when I take my seat, I’m surrounded by schoolies, and looking down over a sea of silver-tops.

The first thing that strikes you about The Ham Funeral is the set: it’s pretty bloody special, with two viciously raked levels making you feel like the set was coming towards you. It’s also doused in monochromatic styling, right down to the teacups and bread; despite the lack of colour, the effect is really quite striking. And while Luke Clayson’s Young Man impresses with his early soliloquy, when the Landlord and Landlady (Jonathon Mill and an incredible Amanda Muggleton) are on the stage, he is blown off it.

The Ham Funeral has loneliness (and its distractor, love) at its core, and the Landlord and -lady cover the extremes… until he dies, whereupon the Landlady becomes almost bipolar with grief-stricken loneliness and lust. The Young Man – a poet – tries to stay at arm’s length from companionship, but his alter-ego – the gorgeously angelic Lizzy Falkland – teases him from across the hall in his lodgings. The scenes where they interact reveal some of the best moments of stagecraft in the production: the snippet where the light catches Falkland’s outstretched hand is just sublime.

The second Act opens with the funeral of the Landlord; and with the wake comes the family, hidden behind garish clown makeup, who proceed to torture his former wife for taking him away from his former circus life. The set is accented with black balloons, but colour is injected via the titular ham. The Landlady, bereft from her husband’s absence, starts flirting outrageously with the Young Man, conflating him with her departed lover (Muggleton revelling in the physical scenes); his rejection emphasises the absence, and when the Young Man realises that his alter-ego no longer inhabits the room across from his, he decides it’s time to leave.

Despite being written by Australian writer Patrick White (the only Aussie to have received the Nobel Prize for Literature!), The Ham Funeral is rarely performed; in fact, the Q&A session that followed this performance emphasised the fact that the world premiere of the play was in Adelaide in 1961. And this rendition of the play is certainly high on production values: as mentioned before, the set is amazing, and is very nearly matched in quality by the costumes… the monochromatic aesthetic is all-encompassing. The text of the play, too, is really enjoyable – I loved the little bits of wordplay in a twisty-turny script.

In all, I found it a really worthwhile trek out to Norwood for this performance, and didn’t even mind the soaking rain on the way home. And, perched as I was down the back of the Odeon, I had the opportunity to scribble down notes to myself during The Ham Funeral – something that’s all too rare these days, since the last thing I want to do is give anyone anywhere ever the impression that I’m “reviewing”. And it’s a good thing, too, since anyone glancing over my notes would have discovered that they were little more than gushing over Lizzy Falkland. A few comments about the set, to be sure, but mostly Lizzy.

[2012123] Instructions For An Imaginary Man

[2012123] Instructions For An Imaginary Man

Various People @ Old Adelaide Gaol

9:30pm, Sun 11 Mar 2012

There’s a decent-sized group of people milling around the pockets of light surrounding the Adelaide Gaol by the time I wander out there; walking towards the focal point of the crowd, I talked to a few black-and-nametag-wearing staff on the way – is there a programme, I ask? One woman looked flustered: “we’ve run out,” she said, “but you might want to check with her.” She threw her arm in a somewhat ambiguous direction.

I head further towards the door, and politely asked the same of another woman who had one booklet in her hand. She smiled at me, and her eyes sparkled a little, but before she could answer she was tapped on the shoulder by a larger woman, wielding a cane. “Did you find any more?” she snarled.

The staff member turned to face her, and I could see her frame balk. “I could only find one…”

“Well that’s just not good enough,” screeched the woman. “How can it possibly be that difficult? You know how many people are coming; how hard can it be to run off a few more photocopies? It’s not like they’re that detailed anyway; anyone can do that!”

In the middle of the woman’s tirade, I feel a prodding in my chest. The staff member had slipped her sole programme under her arm and poked me with it; I started to say something to her, but she just waved it at me. I took it, whispered “thank you, and good luck” in her ear, and acknowledged her nod and smile with a squeeze of her shoulder. As I walked away, I could still hear the woman with the cane chastising my new friend, making the wrong statements to the wrong person… and, predictably, getting the wrong result. For her, not me.

I hang around the doors to the venue and note the crowd – it’s a very un-Festival-like mix of people, and it almost feels like a bunch of tired hippie stragglers have wandered over from WOMAD, picking up some Writer’s Week aficionados on the way, and hooked up with a hipster crowd. While we wait, a big deal is made of the “found space” in the Gaol; when the doors open, we’re firmly told that the seating was used by actual prisoners, and to not use the benches on the sides of the walls unless we’re physically frail… which meant that the hipster component of the crowd filled those benches first and foremost.

I wind up sitting on an old, thin once-was-mattress on the floor in the second row; as soon as I drop to the ground, I know that it’s going to be a long performance. It’s hard and lumpy and, I suspect, only marginally more comfortable than the concrete floor beneath it; the full house ensures that we’re crammed together such that there’s no easy way to stretch our legs during the performance.

But, given this is a performance attempting to tackle the humanity (or lack thereof) of incarceration, maybe that was a deliberate strategy; to get the audience to, in some small way, feel a level of discomfort and captivity.

That idea is given further weight by the almost interminable opening to the performance; shot after shot of the sole actor, Graeme Rose, holding a pose within his “cell” before the light faded to black. The first couple of instances defined the really clever set design; spanning the width of the cell block hall in which we were seated were two thin meshes, which were appropriately lit to create an impermeable wall, a projection surface, or a transparent screen. Rose’s cell lay between the two meshes, and beyond lay a string quartet, a piano, clarinet, baritone Nigel Cliffe, and mezzo soprano Cheryl Pickering (who also doubles up as the creative producer for the project).

After the solitary pose sequence, the performance becomes almost operatic in nature – the singers perform a series of poems written by prisoners of conscience from around the world, with the musical accompaniment providing staid backing (apart from the final piece, which yielded a stunning piano adventure). Unfortunately, the performance of the poems – and Rose’s mute prisoner enactments – all feel pretty one-note-ish… there’s not a lot of variety in the presentation. It’s almost as if the production team found a sombre tone they liked early on and applied it everywhere.

And, to make matters worse, the combination of Cliffe’s baritone, the violins, and the clarinet echoed off the hard, bright walls of the cell block to wreak havoc with my tinnitus – something I was not expecting, given the superlative acoustics that Chants Des Catacombes managed to eke out of the same building.

Between my ringing ears, numb buttocks, and insufficiently stimulated brain, I couldn’t wait to stand up and move around at the conclusion of Instructions For An Imaginary Man. Whilst some of the poems read were nice, I reckon this would’ve been a far more potent performance if it had been trimmed to a mere… oooh, twenty minutes. But bouquets to Bec Francis for the sterling set design; brickbats to the hipsters who spent half the performance reading the libretto by mobile-phone-light – this prison is too nice for the likes of you.

[2012116] Hard To Be A God

[2012116] Hard To Be A God

(Dir: Kornél Mundruczó) @ Old Clipsal Site

9:00pm, Sat 10 Mar 2012

I’ve seen some pretty ordinary Festival shows in my time… I’ve even seen some that I’ve downright hated. But never have I left a performance so… angry? disappointed? no – disrespected as I did with Hard To Be A God.

And I had every right to feel disappointed – I’d really built this show up in my mind as being capable of providing the most confrontational and challenging work in this year’s Festival. But, such is the distaste that has been left behind, I can’t even re-read the Festival Guide to try and figure out why I’d thought that… the words are poisoned in my mind now.

In the middle of the former Clipsal site at Bowden stood a shed, lit up like a beacon. It was a surprisingly cool evening, and patrons – it was a full house, I’d heard – shuffled around outside, hands in pockets, waiting for admittance; when the doors creaked open (ominously, in retrospect), they scurried in to grab an optimal position on the slightly raked seating platform. And there was the first issue – with two sides of the audience each bordered by a semi-trailer, it was obvious early on the there may be sightline issues.

Not that it really mattered.

A short movie is shown on each of two video screens – abstract, a man in a boat. A man scurries in, checking back over his shoulder; he draws aside the curtain that forms one of the walls of the forward semi-trailer. Inside is a sewing sweatshop, some bunks; it’s filthy, and it’s inhabited.

Three young women work away under the watchful eye of Mammy Blue; she also prostitutes them, sells them for use in pornography, and deigns to mother them… but only after subjecting them to rustic abortions. Mammy Blue is the interest of the grizzled truck driver who has brought them here (nominally “Adelaide”); there’s a poorly conceived side-plot which implicates a fictitious South Australian politician in the porn industry, and when a “doctor” arrives to hire some of the girls for a porn shoot, it rapidly descends into a snuff movie.

And that’s about the first thirty minutes. The hour or so after that was just purely desensitised violence and debauchery, ending with a utterly pointless bloodbath. Torture, rape, home abortions, murder… and an ill-fated attempt to lighten things up with a musical number. An even iller-fated attempt to give the plot some legitimacy by tacking on a time-travel twist in the tail.

Hard To Be A God was bleak to the point of soullessness. Once inside that shed, absolutely nothing about the production appealed to me; even the potential shock value of the (first) torture scene was given a cold, detached aesthetic, separated from the audience by forcing the performance onto video screens. The pragmatic lambs-to-the-slaughter of the girls was almost trite, with little reason given to the audience to give a shit about these women.

And, not content with being merely viciously misogynistic, Hard To Be A God seems to go out of its way to hateful to everyone… especially the audience.

I’d love to use the word “clumsy” to describe Hard To Be A God… but it just felt too calculated in its callousness. I’d like to say that it felt like a Fringe show on a Festival budget… but Fringe shows typically have infinitely better everything. I wish I had an excuse to say that this work had a misguided power behind it… but there was no power, just detached debasement. I’d love to be able to say that the production was contentious… but it was merely shit.

I hated it. Hated it. And I wasn’t alone: people in the front row had no problems walking out in the middle of a scene. Only about a quarter of the audience that made it to the end of the performance clapped… and even then, there was a distinct reluctance, and most of the applause stopped almost before the actors returned upright from their first bow – it was purely perfunctory politeness, not appreciation, and the second bow was barely feasible. As we exited the shed – ever-so-quietly, as if the hive-mind was telling us to just shut up and keep our head down and we’ll make it out unscathed – I noticed programmes scattered everywhere – there were very few people who wanted their momentos.

I left as quickly as I could, wandering back towards the Entertainment Centre to catch a tram back into the city. On the tram, I saw a group of four people sitting there, looking sullen; they had a Hard To Be A God programme (one of the few that left the premises) poking out from under a jacket. One chap saw me looking at them, and glanced to see my own programme; we looked at each other a second before we both slowly shook our heads before looking away. Even though I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it, to try and figure out Why?, I recognised that sometimes, it’s best to just let the dust settle.

…seriously, though: Why?

[2012105] School Dance

[2012105] School Dance

Windmill Theatre @ Space Theatre

11:00am, Fri 9 Mar 2012 – oooh, it’s my birthday :)

I’m not exactly proud to admit that School Dance hadn’t even made my Festival shortlist, but the early word-of-mouth was overwhelmingly positive. By the time my interest had been sufficiently aroused, I’d blocked it out of my schedule… so I called out for a very rare favour. I discovered that there were a handful of school-group matinées, and managed to score a ticket – and, in the process, managed to keep my streak of ill-planned early starts on my birthday going.

In front of an instantly familiar school house / dance hall, we’re introduced to Matthew, Jonathon, and Luke – three nerdy friends battling their way through high school, encountering all the stereotypes that we’ve seen a million times before: unrequited yearnings for the attention of the most popular girl in school, the hovering threat of the school bully (an incredibly buff Jim Rose), and the stresses that are applied on their friendships as a result of Growing Up. The focus of the School Dance world is, of course, the eponymous Dance: despite his virtual invisibility to the vast majority of the school (Rose’s bully Derek excepted, of course), Matthew is desperate to meet the beautiful Hannah there, in the hope that all will thereafter be right with the world.

Naturally, he manages to do so – I must’ve watched a hundred teen movies in the eighties that had, at heart, the same plot. Act One, introduce outcast characters plus unrequited love interest who barely knows of her suitor’s existence. Act Two, the hero’s journey. Act Three, resolution against all odds, Cupid’s Arrow hits, everyone’s happy.

And if that was all that School Dance delivered, that’d be a bit disappointing.

But there’s much more to School Dance than that. It takes that premise of “virtually invisible” and creates something more tangible out of it, taking us on a trippy little side journey that manages to both hammer the development of the hero, as well as create an avenue for a plethora of pop-culture references to thrill the older members of the audience – is that Gizmo the Mogwai in the background? Was that a He-Man reference? Is that a unicorn… or a My Little Pony? And why is that Teletubby there? And, as much as I loved the nostalgia-tweaking spot-the-reference in the second act, it’s the most contemplative and weighty part of the performance – and as a result, it slows down proceedings somewhat. Luckily, the third act is a fast-paced, rollicking denouement that leaves us on a high.

The strength of School Dance, however, is in the production. The sets are brilliantly designed, with a school that triggers false memories (and the brilliant use of the girl’s toilets), and the lighting is superb – the glare of the lights in the dance and the murky moonlight are both incredibly convincing, and the management of Matthew’s invisibility is fantastic. There’s some other stunning tricks put to great use, too: the muffling of songs from the foreground when the case “leave” the dance, the narrator freely interacting with the actors (stating the obvious – “she leaves”), the bike-riding scenes generate a genuine sense of frantic motion, and Amber McMahon’s My Little Ponified unicorn was beautifully enacted…

And that brings me to the cast. Whilst Messrs Whittet, Oxlade, and Smiles all play their namesakes (Matthew, Jonathon, and Luke, respectively) convincingly, Amber McMahon gets to play all the female characters… and is quite brilliant in doing so, creating a plethora of believable girls (and unicorns!) onstage. And the cast’s dance moves are all wonderfully performed – especially Gold.

And the soundtrack… oh man, the soundtrack was itself a work of art. A gorgeous synth score burbles along in the background, but it’s the punctuation of the songs of my school years that entice – Echo Beach, Girl U Want, Smalltown Boy, and The Safety Dance are all used perfectly, and my only complaint would have to have been the use of the SAW version of Kylie’s Locomotion – surely everyone knows the Australian version was better! ;)

And when Gold punches out the show, leaving the cast bowing to a rapturous crowd in front of that iconic chorus, I was left feeling hopelessly uplifted: triumph of the underdog, and all that. But, most of all, I left genuinely happy, thrilled that I’d just seen such a wonderfully compassionate and warm-hearted production… and knowing that hundreds of kids had just seen that too. Maybe they missed some of the more obscure references, but it’s impossible to think that they couldn’t have found something familiar and affirming in School Dance. As a performance, it was wonderful; as edutainment, it was spectacular.

[2012088] Gardenia

[2012088] Gardenia

Les Ballets C de la B @ Dunstan Playhouse

7:30pm, Mon 5 Mar 2012

While I was sitting in front of the dance floor at Barrio on opening night, with my “Hug Me” sign emblazoned over my chest, a gorgeous young woman slumped into the seat next to me. “I’ve had a terrible day,” she said with clear English and an accent I could only identify as European; “I need a hug.” “I believe this sign encourages just that,” I said, and we hugged; her arms were desperate, yet weary.

We started talking; it turns out that the woman was Emilie, the tour manager for Les Ballets C de la B. She explained the source of her woes: during rehearsals for Gardenia, one of the elderly performers had fallen off the stage and landed on his head, and was currently in hospital under observation. They hoped he would return soon, she said, but the show must go on; they were in the midst of trying to figure out how the absence of the performer would affect the rest of the show. (We were later joined by the youngest performer of the Gardenia performance – Dirk, maybe? It was late, and my mind was hazy with drink.)

So with that very personal interaction, I was even more keen to see how Gardenia played out, with its cast of elderly transvestite and transexual performers (plus the “young guy” and “real woman”). And it’s a bold opening – the curtain comes up and reveals the eight remaining performers of all shapes and sizes, purposefully standing with the poise of dignified upper-class businessman, resplendent in their stiff suits.

They gradually they strip away a layer of clothing in a process that is almost painfully raw to watch; the older members seek support, trembling on aged legs, as they remove their dull corporate attire to reveal the bright and colourful dresses underneath. But they also manage to ham it up during these transitions; the crowd cackles in glee. There’s costume changes a-plenty, followed by promenades and poses; more costume changes, more cat walking, re-dress in suits, and yet more costume changes. It all starts to feel… well, arduous: it’s almost like we’re watching a blurred gender production line.

But then there’s a scuffle, as the “young guy” and the “real woman” throw each other around the stage. There’s a couple of moments where they almost tumble off the raked stage – I harken back to Emilie’s tragic story, and wonder if this scene was the cause. The scuffle is the most interesting bit of Gardenia for me, as I took it to be an expression of what it’s like to have one gender, but wanting to be seen as another…

…But then there’s another costume change, a final walk down the red carpet, and some clever lighting picks out the posed Gardenians before blackout.

I left this feeling miffed. It felt way too long. There was little narrative, and no depth to the characters, even though there was every opportunity to develop them up. And – here’s the thing that really got me – it felt disrespectful. It felt like a bunch of trannies saying “here we are, laugh at us; look at how kooky we are!”… and the audience just seemed to lap it up. And whilst it could be argued that the decision to present themselves for our laughter was theirs to make, it still felt… well, wrong to me.

Which, unfortunately, resulted in me thinking that Gardenia was an opportunity missed.

[2012077] Proximity

[2012077] Proximity

Australian Dance Theatre @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

8:00pm, Sat 3 Mar 2012

I’ve been feeling increasingly miffed with the ADT’s output in recent years; but when I look back through my archives, I’ve no idea why. Sure, I thought that 2006’s Devolution was arse, but I skipped over G completely, and then there’s nothing else until 2004’s Held, which was really quite wonderful… so I’ve got no real explanation for my escalating dissatisfaction with their work.

It turned out, however, that my unexplainable inclinations were spot-on.

House lights drop; the audience hushes. A spotlight snaps on, picking out a video camera sitting atop a wheeled tripod in the middle of the stage. Stage lights mounted lower down snap on and off in sequence, casting clean shadows from the tripod – oooooh, the shadows are dancing. Initially, I’m somewhat taken in by this; it’s a clever foreshadowing of what is to come, I thought… and, after all, I love my light’n’shadow.

But this sequence just keeps going and going and going… it feels interminable, and – worse – it’s adding nothing after the initial impact. In fact, it’s sapping my good will away – my mood descends entirely into the negative.

And there I mope for most of the performance, as cameras are heavily used to manipulate the form (and effectively control the function) of the ADT’s dancers (once they take to the stage, clad in bold colours). As the dancers perform their movements, the cameras capture them, with various effects – time-delayed image trails, snapshots, wireframe detection – applied through software before being presented to us on a screen at the rear of the stage.

This sort of melding of dance and image processing has been seen in the Festival before: Chunky Move’s Glow was an entertaining, but unsatisfying, piece of performance art back in 2008. So none of this technology really feels new… and, in fact, it really hurts the piece.

Because there’s short fragments of movement, wedged between technological set-pieces, which allow the dancers to perform their choreography without the watchful eye of an onstage camera… and they’re really quite enjoyable, focussing on all the wide stances and deft hand movements and harsh angles that epitomise the ADT to me. The final piece, in particular, was really really good – but then the whole thing becomes tainted once pre-recorded footage of other dancers jumping and falling starts staining the screen behind them. Not only did the footage distract from the more immediate performance, but it was displaying horrible compression artefacts… and that just shows a lack of respect to the audience.

From the ludicrous intro to the bitter ending, Proximity felt like a real mish-mash of ideas… most of which seemed to be exercises in self-indulgence that alienated this audience member, who remained steadfastly un-engaged for 99% of the show. I can’t help but think that the ADT would be a lot better off if they forgot about the techy themes and stuck to some dancing, rather than piss-farting around with wireframe-marionette simulations and having dancers framing shots for the camera with their fingers.

But, let’s face it, at this stage “ADT” stands for “Asinine Dicking with Technology”… and that’s a massive shame, because the actual dancers are bloody great. And, despite the fact that Her Majesty’s was maybe only half full (certainly the dress circle was sparsely populated, and the front two rows – and much of the wings – of the stalls were empty), that didn’t stop some (younger) enthusiasts in the audience from screaming up a storm upon the show’s completion… the dancers (and presumably video artist Thomas Pachoud) were permitted four curtain calls. I can only assume that the rampant applause and hollering was because this was their final performance of the season; the other option, of course, is that I’m horribly out of touch with what constitutes good “dance”.

[2012073] Ennio Morricone Live

[2012073] Ennio Morricone Live

Ennio Morricone, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Adelaide Festival Chorus @ Elder Park

7:30pm, Fri 2 Mar 2012

Right up front: this was one of the most glorious performances I’ve ever seen. Ever.

But so much of any discussion surrounding this event is going to be mired in negativity, because… well, because of scheduling. Because of expectations. Because of elitism and class warfare.

So let’s get the grief out of the way first.

As everyone in Adelaide knows, the third month of the year is colloquially known as Mad March – because most of the major events in the city all take place at the same time. Yes, there’s the Fringe and the Festival, but there’s also (amongst other things) the Clipsal 500 (a touring car race weekend) and, in more recent years, SoundWave (a touring music festival, whose 2013 lineup looks fantastic). The date for Ennio Morricone was announced prior to the Festival launch (sometime around August, if I recall correctly), but – after SoundWave settled on that same Saturday night for its Bonython Park metal-fest, the Festival Board leapt into action and brought Morricone forward a day.

In announcing the rescheduling of the event, a letter was sent out (sometime in November) to people who’d already bought tickets; the Festival’s Artistic Director, Paul Grabowsky, signed his name after the following statement: “We can’t afford to take any risks in the presentation of Ennio Morricone. This is a once in a lifetime experience for our audience and the sound quality must be of the highest level. As much for the sake of our distinguished artists as for our patrons, our standards cannot be compromised.”

Which, in retrospect, indicates that maybe, just maybe, someone didn’t check the city’s event calendar.

Because, when the ASO and a massive chorus fired up under Morricone’s direction, it was only a matter of minutes into the performance before the sounds of car racing on the other side of the city started seeping in.

Now, I saw the funny side of it. I smiled when the silver-tops directly in front of me tutted and harrumphed noisily, turning around to try and spy the aural incursion. I smiled when they shifted in their seats, seemingly seething in aged anger, as an ambulance tore down King William Road, siren blaring. I choked back a giggle as they pulled faces and pointed, enraged, at a plane flying overhead.

I found all that amusing because, clearly, some people had gone to an outdoor concert and expected pristine listening conditions. I, certainly, did not: I want to believe that I live in a living, breathing city, whose denizens are vibrant and able to create wonderful experiences… of which this concert was one. There is only so much of the city one can reasonably expect to control.

Which is why, during one of the softer closing pieces of the second bracket, I was the one who furiously seethed when some utter fuckwit in the Festival Centre allowed their staff to perform their bottle collection procedure, accompanied by a torrent of clanking and smashing of glass.

Because that act was under the reasonable purview of event management. And that act was worth getting upset over.

But there was precious little mention of that in the media. Instead, class warfare broke out in the comments on this Adelaide Now story after Clipsal patrons took umbrage to one of their races being cut short (allegedly due to a phone call from the Premier, who attended Morricone’s performance).

And, whilst I personally find car racing to be unattractive to the point of loathing, I can completely understand where those people are coming from. And, amidst their cultural ignorance, they do bring up some valid points: Clipsal is financially worth far more to the State than the Festival.

That doesn’t stop me becoming depressed over those comments, because this culture clash will inevitably continue for some time to come… and it feels like there are two warring factions that are completely unprepared to give an inch. And, of course, the biggest disgrace (from my point of view) was that Festival Centre cleanup crew…

But you know what? In retrospect, none of what I wrote above matters in the slightest. Because, under Morricone’s tutelage, the ASO and the Chorus created utterly spellbinding renditions of the conductor’s compositions. The pieces that were intimately familiar to me (the soft and sad lullaby of The Sicilian Clan, and the pulsing noir of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) were mesmerising, and the less familiar pieces – most notably the spaghetti western scores – were a joy to drink in. My pleasure was undoubtedly buoyed by our proximity to the stage – our seats were in prime position, and my trusty opera glasses had me watching Morricone’s movements (and the response of the ensemble) like a hawk.

By the end of the programme, I was thrilled – clanking of glass aside, I’d really enjoyed myself. But then came the encores…

Oh. My. God.

There’s a couple of aural ticks that I find emotionally overwhelming: power and depth of sound. Interweaving vocal lines. Bold string notes. And as Morricone kept returning to the stage, to conduct encore after encore, these ticks became more and more evident: and, I swear, that final piece was written, conducted, and performed just for me. A wall of sound, a choral tidal wave, swelling strings…

And all of a sudden I was on my feet. I had to stand and applaud; it seemed utterly inconceivable to me that I could do otherwise. With joyful tears streaming down, breath juddering from weeping, four times I stood and raised my hands in the air, applauding all who created that experience for me.

That was the first time I’ve given anything a standing ovation. There were some acts in the past that, in retrospect, I felt a little guilty about not having contributed to a Standing O, but… now I know what it feels like. To feel utterly compelled to show my appreciation.

And, as we joined the stream of people leaving Elder Park, my Event Buddy gave me a moment to clean myself up; to mop up those distilled tears of joy. “So,” she eventually said, “you enjoyed it?”

All I could do is burst into another happy fit of weeping. And it seems odd that the strongest memories of that magical performance would be of the tears – but I can still feel them now, hot and delicious and uncontrolled and glorious. And they remind me of that sound – not of cars or bottles or sirens or airplanes, but of strings and voices and wind, all controlled by the tiny baton held by a diminutive Italian man.


[2012069] Raoul

[2012069] Raoul

La Compagnie du Hanneton @ Festival Theatre

8:00pm, Thu 1 Mar 2012

After the Festival Launch in October 2011, Raoul was the show I was most inspired by… and its presence at the front of the Festival Guide seemed to cement its regard within the Festival hierarchy.

So imagine my surprise when I started seeing flyers and scribbles at AC Arts advertising $15 tickets for Raoul – on opening night, no less – for artists. That surprise was doubled when Festival Theatre was most certainly not sold out… in fact, from our position it was possible to spot long strings of empty seats scattered throughout the stalls.

Puzzling – a near-flagship-status show for the Festival begging for a crowd on opening night?

(I later discovered – after chatting with members of the Festival Board – that they felt that Raoul wasn’t clearly defined to the consumer… that the average Festival punter didn’t know exactly what the show was. Was it theatre? Opera? Dance?)

No matter… as the performance begins, a hauntingly beautiful set composed of pipes and wisps of fabric and dreams stands silently on the left of the stage; James Thiérrée, dressed like a shipwreck survivor, enters his home, and proceeds to mime aspects of domesticity. But his comic interpretations are interspersed by his house slowly crumbling, his magical traversals through the set, or – more impressively – by the appearance of other creatures.

And the creatures themselves are gorgeous works of whimsy, possessing their own personalities as they share the stage with Raoul – the wormy thing (the programme suggests it was a fish, but my memory likes “worm” better) was a delight, but the real joy came from the armoured bug (which I noted as an electric eel). The bug’s scuttling motions (the machinations of which were laid bare for the audience at the end of the performance) had a tangible sense of character that none of the following creatures could match, though the jellyfish nearing the end of the performance was visually stunning.

As these interactions marked time, the set would peel away and re-shape itself: pipes would clatter, sheets would sweep across the stage to their new positions. Eventually, there’s almost nothing left; suddenly, the stage is blacked out and Raoul, picked out by a spotlight, starts flying above the stage and the first few rows of the audience. The spotlight pulls out, showing the stage techs operating the hoist that keeps Raoul aloft; back on the ground again, Thiérrée dismisses the applause the techs receive by covering them with a curtain.

And that was pretty much it. At the end of the day, Raoul seemed to be an evocative blend of theatre, circus, and magic, all infused with dance sensibilities.

Now, there’s no doubting that Raoul is a spectacular visual experience – watching the deconstruction of the set caused my engineering neurons to light up in glee, and whenever Thiérrée disappeared from the set I found myself searching frantically, trying to figure out where (and how) he would re-emerge. It was like watching a magic show accented with technical wizardry. And there’s also little argument that Thiérrée himself is a fantastic performer (and designer, and director): as a nearly mute comic he has an incredible presence (befitting of the grandson of Chaplin), and the way in which he moves makes him seem as light as air.

But there’s also periods where the spectacle slows up, where the “story” is allowed to progress… and, despite the claims of the programme, there really didn’t feel like there was much of a story to be consumed. Or maybe I’m just too dim to recognise that the set, and the creatures within it, were symbolic of Raoul’s mental fragmentation.

Regardless, about halfway through the performance I realised that I was not connecting with the story… and that’s fine, I reasoned: I’m perfectly happy to forgo plot for spectacle, as long as the spectacle remains. But for me, Raoul‘s failing was that there were too many periods when I was not being visually amazed… and that, dare I say it, left me feeling impatient – as I waited for the next element of wonder to be shown to me.

And, as I left the theatre, I couldn’t help but think that Raoul presented an exceptional example of (deep breath) style over substance.

Later that evening, in the Fringe Club, I engaged in much debate over Raoul with those who had enjoyed it far more than I. But, tellingly, one of the more ardent supporters of the show’s merits admitted “it was like a Dr Brown show, but with a ten million dollar budget.”

And that feels pretty apt.