[2014133] Green Porno

[2014133] Green Porno

Isabella Rossellini @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

3:00pm, Sun 16 Mar 2014

My response when Isabella Rossellini’s name was mentioned at the Festival Launch was only just a little toned down from my John Zorn response: I have adored her (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, her acting) since first encountering her in Blue Velvet. As a result, I had actually already seen some of the Green Porno short movies that were released at Sundance in 2009; that Rossellini could create something so… eccentric was of great interest to The Guardian.

After a late night (featuring a somewhat refined Gorilla/Gorilla reprise) and a busy start to the day (how many of you went to the Double Shot! Unley Coffee Fiesta? Or checked out the Made in Unley Exhibition?), I arrived at Her Majesty’s a little… well, frazzled, but that was tempered by the knowledge that this was my last Festival show. I had a quick chat with David Sefton in the drinks queue (whilst grabbing some bubbles for my perennially-late friend), and bumped into Helen – “Hey, nice picture!” she exclaimed, referring to the Sunday Mail story featuring a couple of photos of my cranky self (photographer Mike Burton and the Garden Freaks were all really lovely during that shoot). There were a few more impromptu chats with familiar Festival faces, and it just felt like wonderfully social start to The Final Day.

I’d grabbed front-row tickets nice and early (well before Green Porno became the first sell-out season of 2014’s Festival), but that’s always a bit of a problem at Her Majesty’s: Row A is below the floor level of the stage, meaning we were constantly looking up. But as soon as Rossellini takes her position behind a podium mere metres from me, any potential neck soreness was completely justified: she owns the description “elegant beauty”, and her presence – and cheeky smile! – is completely enveloping.

I was, without a doubt, unreservedly smitten by her charm.

She could have stood mute onstage for the following eighty minutes, and I would have been happy; but Green Porno is devoted to the study of the sexuality of animals. Having evolved from Rossellini’s series of short movies, some of the text is familiar; indeed, during costume changes, Rossellini plays some of those shorts on a large screen at the back of the stage.

Costume changes? Oh yes. In much the same way as she uses extravagant costumes to highlight the animals she discusses in the videos, Rossellini appears in weird and wonderful costumes onstage: the hamster was a particular delight, and there was even a bit of a knowing moment of self-deprecation when she started linking animal behaviours back to man by dressing as… well, a man.

And there was a fair bit of association with human sexuality, but without getting smutty at any stage; Rossellini kept things classy, even emphasising the importance of emotion in human sexuality (gasp!), and created a real personal rapport with the audience by speaking frankly about her own life (I sensed the woman sitting to my right scowling whenever Rossellini mentioned her husband).

Green Porno was more of an (extremely) entertaining lecture than a theatrical performance… but the emphasis was firmly on the entertainment. Was there anything to be learnt here that wasn’t already available through her videos? Well, no – but Rossellini proved to be an immensely charming (and gorgeous) presenter, quite happy to ham it up in her weird and wacky costumes, and her material was an engaging blend of fact and funny… and, on the basis of her description of barnacle sex, there’s hope for me yet. As a quirky full-stop on my 2014 Festival, Green Porno really delivered.

[2014132] Fight Night

[2014132] Fight Night

The Border Project and Ontroerend Goed @ Queen’s Theatre

10:30pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

The Border Project have been a bit hit-or-miss for me, though I freely admit to having a crap sample size to apply any judgement; whilst their version of Macbeth (performed with the Sydney Theatre Company) was a cracker, their solo effort Trouble on Planet Earth demonstrated that crowdsourcing entertainment doesn’t work. Or, rather, that the crowds who choose to see things at the same time I do suck. Or, maybe, that I’m misanthropic.

Ontroerend Goed, on the other hand, have been nothing but awesome. From my first encounter with the company, they’ve thrown forth consistently challenging and engaging work… and so, on balance, I approached this production full of anticipation.

Unfortunately, Fight Night owes more to Trouble on Planet Earth than any of Ontroerend Goed’s work, and that left me more than a little annoyed… cheated, even. But this time, my ill feelings weren’t completely aimed at my fellow audience members.

The premise is simple: five actors introduce themselves to us, answer questions posed by a moderator, and then – using small wireless voting devices that we were given – we vote on their responses. The loser departs. Simple. But the questions vary in quality: often we’re asked to make a choice based on trivial facts, such as the candidates’ appearance… and that (which just happened to be the first question) is when the negative voices in my head started crossing their arms and harrumphing in the corner.

See, this isn’t the sort of stuff I’m into. After the aforementioned Trouble on Planet Earth, I realised that my opinions are rarely in line with those of a crowd… leading to me inwardly shaking my head at the results of the vote. Perhaps more significantly in the case of this production, however, is the fact that I fucking loathe the type of voting gameshows that Fight Night attempts to parody: I’ve never voted anyone out of a house, or out of a talent show, or anything. That’s not what I want to do.

And yet, there I was… with a voting system that could detect errant voters.

The production goes out of its way to create faux conflict: it is set within a (semblance of a) boxing ring, a huge results screen hanging overhead, with candidates that openly criticise each other and the audience. The candidates (who were introduced divisively as nigger, faggot, cunt, retard, and nothing) pitch their responses to the audience, make alliances behind each other’s backs, and presumably perform in a way intended to mimic “democracy” as we know it; but there’s also conflict from within the audience, too, as two men stormed out of the performance in the first ten minutes, flipping the cast the bird as they did so. I was initially puzzled by this: why were they here, then? What were they expecting – a real fight?

A level of trust is placed in the displayed results by the audience; there were plenty of oohs and aahs when the test question – the gender mix of the audience – presented the fact that women were a slight majority (52%), but the sceptic in me is not sure the number was right… believable, yes, but maybe it’s supposed to be that way. As the voting continues, there’s a few twists and turns: the moderator is voted out in an act of contrived democracy. Then there was the proposition that the audience should give up their vote, justified by the idea that our vote didn’t actually matter; an option taken by many grinning audience members in the crowd, who happily handed in their voting devices and sat on the stage for the remainder of the show.

And that was the point where I felt obliged to give the production some credit: we – the audience – were coerced into thinking that our vote didn’t matter, that not voting was the only legitimate way to have a voice. But those people who opted not to vote? That was their choice – and, when we were permitted to vote on their expulsion from the show, of course I voted to kick them out. Their choices handed me that power; they were complicit in my decision.

The contrivance of the ending – where the perennial favourite wins, despite delivering the exact result that one of the other candidates pitched (and she railed against) – made Fight Night feel like a ruse: that we were duped, while being socially engineered into believing that we actually had agency in this process. It’s only later that I reflect on the two guys who left in the opening ten minutes, and entertain the idea that they were plants; I talked to people who attended other performances of Fight Night and heard that they, too, witnessed such a disturbance. Maybe this was part of the social engineering performed upon us… maybe the prickly manner of their departure was somehow supposed to unite us as an audience, to create a baseline from whence we could be splintered.

I knew early on that I was not going to get the most out of Fight Night, and even my appreciation of the manipulations applied to us couldn’t completely overcome my inherent dislike of this type of group interactive experience. I’m sure that some people had a great laugh; I’m sure that some people learnt something. But I just had to make do with trying to figure out how they were making us act like idiots.

[2014128] Needles and Opium

[2014128] Needles and Opium

Ex Machina @ Dunstan Playhouse

2:00pm, Sat 15 Mar 2014

One of the most significant performances in my Festival history was the March 1, 1998 performance of The Seven Streams of the River Ota; not only did it open my eyes to durational theatre, immersive spectacle, and the Festival in general, but it also introduced me to a partner-in-crime… my major Significant Other (thus far). And whilst that relationship (such as it was) is over, the friendship – and the glorious manner of our meeting facilitated by Ota – continues on.

In addition to the emotional attachment that surrounds the memory of that performance, Ota proved to be an eight-hour epic theatrical event, full of stunning performances and technical stage wizardry; thus, when it was announced that this year’s Festival would be featuring another of writer/director Robert Lepage’s earlier works, reworked for a new audience, I got my pen out and inked in my intent… a matinée? Perfect.

After opening night was beset by technical problems, causing a premature end with a quarter of the performance remaining, the buzz around town was somewhat muted and sceptical. But within moments of the start of the show, it became clear why technical difficulties could occur: the set, a massive cubic shape of three walls, stood on its corner and rotated throughout. It was used as a projection surface, trapdoors allowed performers to creatively enter and exit scenes, and the natural slope of the set permitted many quirky visual treats – some of which required safety harnesses, permitting characters to fly through the air.

The staging, and direction, really was remarkable. Imaginative, challenging, glorious.

Which makes it all the more shameful that I found the actual subject matter of Needles and Opium to be deathly dull.

But it all started so promisingly, with as the lonely figure of Marc Labrèche slowly crossed the stage whilst narrating; suddenly the stage lit up with a thousand points of light, with Labrèche sailing through these stars. But we’re soon back in a scene approaching normalcy: Labrèche plays Robert, in Paris to record the narration for a documentary on Miles Davis (and his lover, Juliette Gréco). To occupy himself in the city, he starts reading a book by Jean Cocteau, and listening to a live recording of Davis.

Thereafter the performance spins between the characters of Robert and Cocteau (also played by Labrèche) and Davis (wonderfully performed by Wellesley Robertson III – though played as a mute (except for his trumpet), his body language spoke volumes). There’s a pervasive sense of loneliness shared by all three characters: Cocteau and Davis only seem capable of feeling though the use of opium and heroin (respectively), whereas Robert seemed to wallow in his loneliness, comforted by the record and book. The overall mood is of melancholy and despair, especially once the drugs take their toll, with addled and lethargic characters providing a painful narrative… it really was difficult to watch Davis pawn his trumpet.

There were some reports of standing ovations at other performances; it certainly received no such recognition from the audience in this matinée, nor was it even vaguely considered by myself. One can see that Lepage was trying to create a connection between the use (or the addiction?) of drugs, and the creativity of Davis and Cocteau… but it felt heavy-handed and bereft of subtlety. Far from being the supremely balanced experience of The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Needles and Opium felt like a transparent masterclass in style over substance. As a spectacle, it was sublime; as a coherent piece of theatre, it flailed in vain for emotional impact.

[2014126] Zorn@60

[2014126] Zorn@60

John Zorn (and at least twenty-one friends) @ Festival Theatre

7:30pm, Fri 14 Mar 2014

And so it came to this: the reason for John Zorn’s presence in this Festival. A celebration of music in honour of his sixtieth birthday (which actually fell six months earlier); a series of musical explorations assembled by the birthday boy himself. To say that Zorn@60 was a genre-bending spectacle completely understates the breadth of its sources; everything from ambient to classical, pop to jazz to metal, was covered.

And it all felt so very, very consistent within the framework that Zorn set up.

The opening act, the Zorn-conducted Song Project, featured Mike Patton, Sofia Rei, and Jesse Harris on vocals… but the opening piece was a rendition of Batman – which just happened to be the first ever Naked City track I ever heard, way back in 1992. It was a complete surprise to hear that as an opener, but it made me feel completely at home; and whilst I wasn’t that enamoured with Harris’ vocal stylings, Rei’s smooth latin-influenced voice was a source of sheer delight, and the band (featuring, amongst others, the wonderful Joey Baron / Trevor Dunn rhythm section, as well as Marc Ribot on guitar) covered territory from thrashy punk to cool pop. A note-perfect Osaka Bondage was icing on the cake.

An interval preceded a trio of stripped-back performances: Illuminations provided some smoother free-jazz pieces, with Dunn on bass, Kenny Wollesen on percussion, and Stephen Gosling on keys; the intensity of the performance was noticeably decreased from the opening bracket, but in its place came subtlety and nuance. This trend was further highlighted by The Holy Visions, a five-voice all-female a cappella group whose occasionally breathy moments evoked thoughts of chamber music. Then came a string quartet from the Elision Ensemble (who had featured in the Classical Marathon that I had also missed) performing The Alchemist: a challenging piece for this listener, featuring all the discordance of Naked City’s work with none of the underpinning action. Once I got into the groove of it (or lack thereof), though, it became another invigorating experience.

Another interval allowed time for the Moonchild project to set up: Patton providing vocals over Baron, Dunn, and John Medeski’s driving score. Another brilliant example in variations of intensity, individual songs would range from creeping ascensions to violent outbursts to peaceful interludes; Patton worked both as a singer and an instrument, crooning and growling and spitting as needed.

The Dreamers, with Ribot joining the Baron / Dunn pairing with percussionist Cyro Baptista, Wollesen, and Jamie Saft on keys, were a fair bit punchier than their moniker suggested; but there were also moments of sparseness tinged with middle-eastern notes that intrigued. But then came the closing act, a return of Electric Masada; as the group assembled onstage (with Zorn taking up position as conductor), someone in the front couple of rows yelled out “must be time for more saxophone!” – to which Zorn turned to him, grinned, and raised a solitary middle finger. His alto did make an appearance in that blistering final set (with a callback to the audience member), in a vicious aural assault that genuinely amazed me… this is what I missed on the opening night of Zornapalooza? I suspect that regret will only intensify as I age, but I will revel in the Electric Masada memories that I do have… which include an incredulous Cyro Baptista shaking odd foam concoctions and fisting a drum for percussive effects.

Festival Artistic Director David Sefton proudly tells the story of how he lured Zorn to Adelaide… fulfilling the promise to “do it right,” a massive ensemble of musicians accompanied the composer out to our sleepy Festival town, often for only short stints onstage (Dave Lombardo’s appearance for the opener of the Triple Bill springs to mind). But you get the feeling that, far from this being product of rock-star excess or hubris, Zorn needed these people – these contemporaries – to be here, and he honoured every instance of their work with pre- and post-performance introductions.

Zorn@60 was, quite frankly, fucking magnificent. Lights dropped at 7:30pm; they came up for the last time at 12:15am. Nearly every minute in between (except for the intervals, and even then the observations and conversations were scintillating entities unto themselves) belongs in a highlights reel somewhere. Simply astonishing musicianship by musicians that appeared to be incredibly happy performing their art, all brought together by a musical luminary who is unlikely to be equalled (in my ear). As excited as I was when Zorn’s participation in this Festival was announced, the reality far exceeded the expectation; my only was regret was that I didn’t catch the opening Masada Marathon performance.

[2014121] Zorn Triple Bill

[2014121] Zorn Triple Bill

John Zorn (and fifteen friends) @ Festival Theatre

7:30pm, Thu 13 Mar 2014

Music, eh? It’s a funny thing, what with “taste” and all that. My own musical preferences have wandered all over the musical map, and are currently mired in a resurgence of interest in pop… but, while I was at Uni, I was really into heavier stuff.

In particular, I was a massive fan of Faith No More. And by “massive”, I mean “let’s take the day off lectures to hang around at the airport holding a massive banner waiting for them to arrive” type of thing. Yes, I was an airport groupie kinda guy. And, given that my interest in FNM kicked off with The Real Thing, my fandom directed me to check out vocalist Mike Patton’s other band, Mr. Bungle.

Mr. Bungle’s first major-label release was completely unlike anything I’d ever heard before: musically, it was like an insanely bright DayGlo jigsaw puzzle, and the album featured impeccable production. The sonic construction intrigued me, and I started looking into the producer of that album: someone named John Zorn.

I soon discovered that this Zorn character had released a few (read: squillion) albums of his own, so I tentatively got Greg at Uni Records to order one in, knowing nothing about its content. That first Zorn album was his band Naked City‘s debut album, and… it was amazing. More Naked City followed, along with the improvisational Locus Solus, the eerie Elegy, and one of his other band projects, the brutal Painkiller. Sure, that collection wasn’t something you’d leave in the CD player for weeks – or even days – at a time, but I had a massive amount of respect for the musical invention contained therein… especially when I discovered that Naked City’s work was actually composed.

Clearly, John Zorn was a mad genius… and that is how the Zorn’s name became implanted in my brain.

And then, as I’ve mentioned before, on the third of September last year Festival Artistic Director David Sefton had an on-stage chat with Katrina Sedgwick; as part of their “conversation,” two of the headline acts for the 2014 Festival were announced. The first was Roman Tragedies, which had me excited… the other announcement, though, literally made me squeal with excitement.

Yes, I squealed. Like a plump pig being tickled whilst rolling in mud, I squealed very, very audibly. David briefly turned to see what the noise had been. Festival Chief Executive Karen Bryant, sitting in the front row directly in front of me, turned to give me a glare… and a grin. After the formal announcements, I roamed the room, shaking the hand of anyone on the Board with excitement; “You happy with that?” one of my usual Festival bigwig friends asked. My response was ever-so-enthusiastic and profane:

Let’s just say that yes, I was pretty damn happy.

But then the reality of The Shortlist set in, and I became aware that seeing all four evenings of Zorn’s expedition would severely impact other shows; hindsight is certainly twenty-twenty, and I know now that I wouldn’t have really missed much by committing to a non-stop Zorn-fest. But the one performance I was not going to miss – and the one performance that I was urging everyone to go and see – was this one: Zorn Triple Bill.

And after hearing murmurs about the quality of the first two nights of Zornapalooza, I was giddy with excitement… and, having reached out to one of my Uni friends that I’d not seen in years to share the experience, I found myself in a prime position in Festival Theatre. We were set.

The Zorn Triple Bill was so named for the three distinctly different pieces to be performed, each of which had a particular bit of interest to me. The opening piece was Bladerunner, a trio featuring Zorn on sax, the mighty Bill Laswell on bass, and the even mightier Dave Lombardo on drums. To see Laswell perform was a treat in itself (I recommend listening to the Laswell-centric Sacred Dub podcasts for some of his work), almost appearing serenely pious as he underpinned Lombardo’s thrashing and Zorn’s squealing & squawking. The opening pieces were like a punch in the face, fast and powerful, but when Mike Patton appeared to apply guttural roars liberally over the top – playfully engaging with Zorn as he did so – Bladerunner was taken to a whole new level.

Fast, vicious, and brutal. Oh man, that absolutely delivered. I could have gone home more-than-happy at that point.

After a short interval, a ten-piece ensemble was constructed for a series of scores accompanying three short cinematic pieces, projected behind the ensemble whilst they played. Whilst Zorn played alto and conducted the group, the additional attraction here was to see Marc Ribot and (especially) Ikue Mori. Both proved to be quite understated in their stage presence – understandable, really, given they were sharing the stage with Zorn – and Mori, in particular, was so far from what I was expecting that I was taken aback a little.

Unfortunately, even with (or because of?) the visual accompaniment, I found it really difficult to get into the Essential Cinema part of the performance; the pieces were slower, more contemplative, and – whilst they seemed to fit the movies well – didn’t really connect on any level… other than the fact that I was watching these amazing performers.

But that was okay. I was still overjoyed. And the thing I most wanted to see – the headliner of the Triple Bill – was yet to come.

Ever since my early forays into Zorn and Patton, there had been one thing that had always piqued my interest: a musical “game” called Cobra. I’d seen a performance of Cobra at the Wheatsheaf some years back (and this might be it!), and it had left me more-than-curious… to see a Zorn-conducted performance was something that I Would Not Miss. This was the reason I had urged everyone to go to this performance.

And you know what? It delivered.

Zorn “conducted” his ensemble – featuring Patton, Ribot, Mori, Trevor Dunn, and many others – using a collection of cards and gestures, with the showing of a card eliciting delight from the performers. Keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Joey Baron, in particular, often broke into broad grins at the sight of the next cue, and the ensemble in general just showed so much joy… it really did seem as if this group absolutely revelled in the game of Cobra.

But the surprising thing, for me, was how genuinely exciting Cobra was as an audience member. I was literally sitting on the edge of my seat, eyes scanning the stage to see how performers responded to the cards, or trying to see what the cards actually were. Another unexpected delight was the discovery that the performers would madly gesture suggestions to Zorn (often whilst frantically playing, or by the application of headwear); Baron would often throw back his head in despair when his requests were denied, but – mere seconds later – would be grinning like a loon as a result of the conducted changes.

The musical output? Well, it was almost immaterial – Cobra is a musical spectator sport – but it varied in pace and intensity, never really settling into any one groove… it really did appear to shift tone on Zorn’s whim. But it was the type of stuff that left me energised and alive… and on my feet.

Despite the relative emotional distance from the Essential Cinema pieces, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Triple Bill was worthy of a standing ovation… especially after that stunning performance of Cobra. I cannot remember a single musical performance that delivered more excitement, more engagement, and generated more joy – both onstage and off. Absolutely exhilarating.

[2014118] Rime of the Ancient Mariner

[2014118] Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Tiger Lillies @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

8:30pm, Wed 12 Mar 2014

Once upon a time – say, way back in 2000 – I would write about shows I’d seen within eighteen hours of actually having seen them. Crazy, hey? I’d get home at about 1am – no Fringe Club shenanigans in those days – and sit down, brain-dump out some words, then go to bed with no lingering self-imposed pressure hanging over me.

Ah, those were the days.

Of course, it meant that I was doing a bunch of writing (and I was much shitter at the words n’stuff back then) whilst a bit dozy and wrong-headed… which is the only reason I can think of for the words blurted out for The Tiger Lillies’ visit to the 2000 Festival, Shock Headed Peter. See, despite those words indicating that I liked the show quite a bit, the lingering memory was that it was a classic instance of style-over-substance; at the 2014 Festival launch last year, their presence was very low on the list of priorities.

But, as the hubbub around this year’s Festival grew, a lot of people I spoke to mentioned Rime of the Ancient Mariner as one of the shows they were looking forward to the most… and I got well-and-truly sucked in by their enthusiasm. A trade-off against one of the Zorn performances was required, but I committed to the date and got a great seat and… later… wondered why I’d bothered.

But initial impressions were wondrous: trapped between two projection surfaces, The Tiger Lillies almost swim in ethereal light, as Mark Holthusen’s multi-layered visuals wrap around them. The projected images provide the set around which the trio play, and their aural signature – Martyn Jacques’ alternating growls and falsetto atop a rich musical backing – remains undiluted, as they churn through a nineteen-song set inspired by Coleridge‘s titular poem.

But a couple of songs in, I started feeling a little… well, removed. The scrim at the front of the stage being used as a projection surface was thin, but it still obscured the trio behind; it added a mottled, hazy quality to their presence. Worse, my brain started convincing me that the scrim was more like a barrier between the performers and myself; I was starting to feel emotionally disconnected from the show.

Then came the song Land of Ice – and the lyrics were… well, bad. Banal, even. The type of awfulness that made me yearn for Van Dyke Parks‘ murderous “put on your sailin’ shoes,” from a show I swore I’d never speak of again. And suddenly any spell that had been cast over me had been broken: suddenly, all I could see before me were a trio of men with a pleasing aural aesthetic singing bad songs whilst half-hidden by imagery whose magic was fading fast.

I really didn’t get into Rime of the Ancient Mariner. At all. And it wasn’t like I was afforded the entertainment of anger, either; more a sense of clock-watching ennui, which is far, far worse. But some of the people around me… oh. They loved it. Standing-ovation loved it. And that encouraged me to start chewing my mental cud: what had those people seen in this performance that I had not?

Or did I get that question the wrong way around? What had I seen that they had not? And had I seen it in this piece, or one of hundreds of other pieces?

Regardless: as the house lights came up, I felt mightily disappointed in what I’d seen. It had been a quality production, for sure, with a sumptuous presentation that almost coaxed some emotion from me… but in the end it felt overblown, like the production had collapsed under its own weight. And, as some people tried to exit Her Majesty’s during the curtain call (much to the raised-eyebrow chagrin of the standing-o-meisters), The Tiger Lillies bid them adieu by flicking Vs at their turned backs.

And all I thought was: way to go, boys. Way to endear yourselves to the audience.

And then I left, still disappointed… but now, also, annoyed.

[2014098] Sadeh21

[2014098] Sadeh21

Batsheva Dance Company @ Festival Theatre

8:30pm, Sat 8 Mar 2014

Once again, I feel obliged to trot out my usual admissions regarding Dance: moreso than any other medium, I feel completely lost when it comes to explaining my response to a piece of dance. After all these years, I still feel like there’s a massive disconnect between how dance makes me feel, and the words I struggle to associate with them… and, more perplexingly, I still lack any ability to “see” real talent or excellence. Hell, I’m convinced that some of my favourite k-pop performers are great dancers, a statement that I suspect any real dance aficionado would scoff at.

A side-effect to that blindness is that I wouldn’t know a “good” dance company if they performed in my lounge room; but I sure do know what excited Festival Patrons sound like. And so, during the Festival Launch last October, when David Sefton announced that Batsheva Dance Company was returning to Adelaide (their previous visit was just before I became intoxicated by all things Festivalian), the cooing of the audience told me all I needed to know: Sadeh21 was going to be a must-see.

A mad dash across town saw me approaching the Festival Centre a comfortable handful of minutes before the scheduled start of the performance; there were very few people milling around outside the Theatre. Odd, I thought, given the strict lockout policy on the performance… but then I saw a pair of protesters, quietly holding pro-Palestinian placards and gently proffering information leaflets. The few people in front of me turned their shoulders and shunned the protesters as they shuffled by.

Inside the Centre, I quickly cool and de-sweat before taking my seat; there’s two women in the seats to my right, and I offer a quiet greeting as I sit down: they stared icily at me in return, returning to their conversation in what I assumed was Hebrew. A moment later, two young men sat to my right, also speaking (what I assume to be) Hebrew; again, a frosty greeting, and they mutely stared at their phones until the lights dropped.

Surrounded by people, and with the friendliest of intentions, I felt alone. But then Sadeh21 began.

The staging is simple: a featureless wall spanned the stage at about half the depth; upon it flickered the phrase “Sadeh 1”. A woman strutted across the stage, breaking stride only to toss her head back. More people start crossing the stage; they all have physical ticks, jerks, or impossible bends, before returning to their measured paces.

Minutes into the performance, and I was astonished: bodies aren’t supposed to move like that.

Subsequent pieces also confound: after “Sadeh 2” appears projected onto the wall, I realised that we were going to be watching twenty-one fragments of dance. The gorgeous low funk choreography of Sadeh 5 was tempered by the prolonged and painful illegible babbling of a man in Sadeh 6; as a result, the skipping of Sadeh 7 through 18 felt like both a disappointment and a relief.

But then came the rigid lines and militaristic overtones of Sadeh 19, and my mind immediately went back to the quiet protesters outside the Festival Centre; back to the dancers, and there was no glory to be seen in those lines, no joy in the choreography. And then, as if for the first time, I noticed the wall: ominous, foreboding. Sadeh 20 slapped me back into the moment, with the constant sound of screaming in the accompanying music unsettling me, drifting focus away from the physical performance… and willing this episode to stop, taking the music with it.

Then to Sadeh 21: as credits rolled up the wall, the performers clambered to the top of the wall, only to fall off (to the back of the stage) and return again. There’s an odd moment when someone in the audience starts clapping in the middle of the credits sequence; it’s not until we see “the end” projected on the wall (after the dancers fall for the last time, never to reappear onstage) that the rest of us started applauding, realising that person had the right idea.

Sadeh21 was a bloody amazing experience: each of its nine pieces had something different to offer (both physically and aurally), and most of the movement was just stunning… the flexibility and balance and everything on display was really something else. But those two pieces that didn’t work for me – Sadeh 6 and 20 – really upset the balance of the performance… and it’s interesting, in retrospect, to realise that it was the aural accompaniment that triggered my negative reactions.

Those other seven pieces, though? Fucking brilliant.

[2014096] Blackout

[2014096] Blackout

Stone/Castro @ AC Arts Main Theatre

5:00pm, Sat 8 Mar 2014

I’ve never really gotten on with Paulo Castro’s productions… and I’ve certainly never been as convinced by his work as popular opinion suggests I should be. He’s lauded by people I respect, but… I just don’t Get It. But Blackout was commissioned by the Adelaide Festival, my faith in David Sefton was swelling… and a friendly timeslot beckoned. Larissa McGowan and Steve Sheehan in the cast. Deep breath… and commit. Tickets bought.

But warning lights (and klaxons, and a flight response) should have gone off when a hand-scrawled note to the side of the Main Theatre’s entrance indicated that the performance would be much longer than the seventy-five minutes suggested by the Festival Guide… a sure sign that Blackout was still a work in progress. But, upon entering the space, I was actually sucked in by the stage: wide open and deep, it was an exercise in refinement, with a curious clear canopy overhead and a ring surrounding the stage centre.

But then the performance itself starts… and, well, it’s a bit of a mess.

Blackout is ostensibly a mixed media performance, mixing a theatrical narrative with dance-based movement, which follows a cluster of people celebrating a wedding on a boat; later in the piece, a storm hits the party, and a sense of doom pervades proceedings as the characters fight amongst themselves. And that all sounds interesting enough, but…

The Good Bits first: the direction of the cast is wonderful, making full use of the stage and (on the few occasions that they’re allowed enough space to be noticed) the dance-inspired movements are really quite lovely to behold. The stage itself was cleverly done, with a semi-circular buffer allowed to fill with water and create a gorgeous shimmering effect underfoot; the canopy served multiple purposes, catching the light in an almost ethereal way, and creating a lovely aural texture when rain started falling upon it.

As for the textual content of the piece… well, I didn’t get along with it at all. Whilst there were some interesting characters – and Stephen Sheehan brought some comic gravitas to his role – none of them were overly likeable, and the bulk of the (poor) dialogue took a back seat in my memory in favour of one ranting soliloquy by an angst-ridden guitar-wielding emotional wreck. The fish falling from the roof? Yawn, bore, seen it all before (in Brink’s 2008 production When The Rain Stops Falling, when it actually meant something), and – just to tick all the boxes on this year’s bingo card – there was a bit of penis performance art.

But it’s the caring that I missed most in this piece, especially for something set at a wedding; surely I should give a shit about someone? Surely someone should tug at my heartstrings, or make me laugh (in a non-ironic manner)? Surely I should find some reason to empathise with someone? But no – instead, I dispassionately watched a bunch of people wander around a clever set, and wondered where the story was going… and when it was going to end.

I didn’t leave Blackout angry at the performance that I’d witnessed… annoyed, maybe. Disappointed, definitely. But, even as I tried to focus on the positives as I scurried to my next event, I chastised myself for not following my initial instincts. A mistake that I hope I won’t make again.

[2014085] An Iliad

[2014085] An Iliad

Homer’s Coat / ArKtype @ Dunstan Playhouse

7:30pm, Wed 5 Mar 2014

For no particular reason, An Iliad wasn’t high on my list of priorities when booking Festival tickets… yet my (relatively) last-minute planning decision still yielded a remarkably good seat, and the grapevine was bubbling with praise after the opening-night performance. Needless to say, I was looking forward to see what this production would deliver… even if my knowledge of Homer‘s Iliad was shaky, at best.

Co-creators of An Iliad, Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, were driven to explore theatrical texts around war after the US invaded Iraq in 2003; eventually they arrived at Iliad, deriving this production from Homer’s text – and rolling in modern influences. O’Hare plays The Poet, who (as the programme points out) is doomed to continually tell the story of the Trojan War until the human race loses its fascination with addiction to war. It’s performed largely as a solo piece, though double-bassist (and occasional percussionist) Brian Ellingsen (listed in the programme as “Ellingson” – oops) is also onstage much of the time, underpinning and punctuating O’Hare’s narration.

The Poet initially appears a sozzled bum, gruff and perfunctory in dress and presentation, on a darkened stage bereft of scenery, and initially leads into the tale of the Trojan War with a weary reluctance… but, once the text livens up with the cut and thrust of battles both political and physical, O’Hare starts roaming the stage with a presence that is extraordinary: every character has their own voice, their own physicality. The text is packed with sideways glances to modern events, and The Poet is unafraid to take the piss out of everyone; there’s a glorious moment where he compares a ten-year war to waiting in line at the supermarket, only to discover the other line is moving faster. You could change lines, but that would mean accepting the time wasted in your queue… The wink and nod is not necessary for such an overt political statement.

For some reason, An Iliad evoked memories of last year’s production of Beowulf by BBB – though I can’t quite put a finger on why. I don’t think it was in response to the obvious deconstruction of their source material (An Iliad felt very much like a response to Homer’s play, rather than an interpretation of it), and it couldn’t be the staging – the two are like chalk and cheese, with director Lisa Peterson keeping the stage largely empty, as opposed to the constant visual hubbub and surprises of BBB’s efforts.

And, stranger still, O’Hare’s performance also caused me to reflect on Stephen Dillane’s one-man Macbeth in 2006. This felt more explainable, though: (largely) solo performances of epic pieces of literature featuring tremendous stage presence. But whilst Dillane’s piece left me feeling a little empty inside, O’Hare manages to conjure a performance that was technically articulate, poignant, and entertaining… and that finale! The closeout is magnificent theatre: as a spotlight closes in around The Poet, he starts listing off the conflicts that have consumed mankind ever since the Trojan Wars. The light tightens and grows weaker, the names become more familiar, leading to current battles… then darkness.

To be honest, I can’t justify why I didn’t leap to my feet at the end of this performance to deliver An Iliad the standing-O that hindsight tells me it deserved. Because it was one of those memorable performances whose only distraction was the Squeaky Row of seats in the Playhouse… yes, we’ve all been stuck there at one time or another, but there was no need for this evening’s “lucky” patrons to rock back and forth in celebration (especially during the quieter moments).

[2014083] The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean

[2014083] The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean

Shona Reppe @ Odeon Theatre

1:30pm, Wed 5 Mar 2014

When you’ve got something like Roman Tragedies in the programme, the rest of the shows in the Theatre category can look a little… well, underwhelming. But faith in David Sefton – and the opportunity to squeeze in a matinée – drags me out to the Odeon, where I leech some free Wi-Fi and chat with Jane after I mis-judge my travel times.

Thankfully for a show ostensibly targeted at children, there’s a healthy percentage of youngsters in the otherwise light audience for this performance; we’re ever-so-gently encouraged to crowd the front couple of rows to generate a bit of atmosphere. Onstage is an elaborate frame of possibilities: small objects in plastic bags hang around the aluminium frame that reminds me of a puppet theatre, with a table in the middle angled so as to present objects on the surface to the audience.

Shona Reppe purposefully strides on stage, appearing every bit the focused scientist in her white lab coat; she announces herself as a doctor of Scrapology, working for SCRAPS: the Society for the Care, Repair and Analytical Probing of Scrapbooks. As the name entails, she gently explains to the children (or, as she adorably calls them, “Scrapettes”) in the audience, this involves her analysing the contents of scrapbooks to unlock the clues to their stories.

This investigation’s scrapbook is introduced as Reppe dramatically blows off a layer of dust; she then plays rustic CSI on the book, investigating it with magnifying glasses and tweezers, occasionally projecting the contents on a video screen. She also presents the book to the audience in a very story-time reading style, but rarely talks down to us as she discovers the story of Artemis, a lonely man who (eventually) meets and falls in love with the mysterious Josephine Bean… but whilst photographic evidence of Artemis is found, Josephine is notable by her absence.

Yes, it’s pitched at a younger audience, and yes, the performance occasionally drifts towards the twee; but Reppe is utterly charming in her role, not to mention convincing: the scenes that involve her stretching out paths for Josephine Bean to follow were wonderful. The direction of the play – though perhaps not best suited for a wide space like the Odeon – is imaginative, with great use of video overlays and shadow play to trigger the audience’s imaginations.

Whilst The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean wasn’t the most compelling theatre to be shown as part of the Festival, it was totally worth the effort to squeeze it in. It’s carried by Shona Reppe’s charming (and direct) performance, but I suspect the real art of the piece lies in the sparks of imagination that the audience carry with them once the show is over.

[2014078] River of Fundament

[2014078] River of Fundament

A film by Matthew Barney and Jonathon Bepler @ Capri Theatre

5:00pm, Mon 3 Mar 2014

So – a bearded middle-aged man emerges from a river of shit and wanders through an apartment in a bizarre house to the bathroom where he plucks a turd from the toilet bowl and wraps it in gold foil and returns it to the toilet whereupon it transforms into an old man with a gold foil condom and wheezing colostomy bag that proceeds to anally fuck him with the resultant juices appearing as mercury which rolls into the next room to a girl with two prosthetic legs who then starts carving away at her stumps with a knife.

And then the title of the film appears.

I wrote the above during the first interval of River of Fundament, and I’ve read it to a number of people since; they have all nodded their heads and said “Yep. That nails it.”

Which is nice, because it’s one of my favourite bits of writing ever. It just poured out of me as an immediate response to the first third of this movie, presented by Festival Artistic Director David Sefton as a challenging durational work… in fact, he all but dared people at the Festival launch to see it. But not many seemed willing to take him up on that dare: there was maybe only around a quiet hundred or so in attendance at the Chelsea for this screening… and maybe a third of those departed during the interval prior to the second Act.

Maybe they left because of the knowledge that the movie was supposed to be five hours long (and ran about ten percent over)… or maybe they left because the first Act was fucking bonkers… but it’s only in retrospect that one can truthfully say that the first Act was the (relatively) Sane Act.

But let’s take a step back: River of Fundament is very much an art-film, written and directed (and, occasionally, performed) by Matthew Barney, with a musical score by Jonathon Bepler. The two had previously worked together, most notably on The Cremaster Cycle… whose Wikipedia entry I wish I’d read before seeing Fundament. “[S]ome consider it a major work of art, on a par with …The Waste Land, while others dismiss it as vapid, self-indulgent tedium” says the Reception section on the page, and I think the same reception could befall this work.

It’s essentially performed as an opera (reading the libretto now is both enlightening and disturbing), with significant portions of dialogue-heavy narrative, such as the wake of Norman Mailer… but even that proves to be an opportunity for the bizarre, taking place in a house on a river barge with all manner of guests from fact and fiction. Mailer is reincarnated several times over the course of the movie – evoking the overarching themes of regeneration and rebirth – and there’s repeated motifs involving cars and steel and rivers and…

Oh, and there’s a distinctly Egyptian flavour to the text, too.

But that’s about the limit of my understanding. I remember gently mocking someone who was perusing the libretto prior to the film starting, jokingly accusing them of self-spoiling; but they most certainly were on the right track: I joined the bulk of the audience who furiously studied the text in the intervals. Not that it helped: Barney’s visual presentation gives the impression that it is drenched in metaphor, but you’re not quite sure for what. It’s kind of like a dot-to-dot puzzle where you think you know what the picture is supposed to be, but the dots are numbered in such an order that all you wind up with is a big messy squiggle.

Whilst Barney certainly has an eye for colour and spectacle, his writing is the type of inspired lunacy that befits the partner of Björk. That opening sequence – a pastiche of discordant images and actions – is bookended by a similar closing sequence that went on and on and on… but it was impossible to look away. For all the impenetrable subtext behind the butchery of a golden car, or the rivulets of molten metal, or the choral battles in a dry dock, there’s no denying the visual beauty of the movie; this trailer shows about one four-hundredth of the content, and it’s gorgeous. The sound, too, was wonderful, with rich orchestrations accompanying the operatic portions and contemplative quietness when required (though things were a little murky early in the second Act).

But Oh! the memories I will treasure from River of Fundament: the non sequitur montage of someone biting into a lettuce (à la Iron Chef) made absolutely no sense at all… until the third Act, where a lettuce is used as a masturbatory aid with the resulting semen-sodden fibre eaten. And then there was the graphic – and I mean graphic – sex scenes. Despite what my friends may think, I’m no porn connoisseur, but I doubt there’s any content online that matches the graphic intensity of these scenes… because this stuff was shot well. That manic sequence featuring a frantic drum solo behind a lovingly shot rimming sequence with a naked woman bent over backwards pissing on a dinner table, cut with two men fighting and mutilating each other’s genitals… bizarre. There was a pregnant woman involved there too.

So… prior to seeing Annie Sprinkle in 1996, I couldn’t believe that an “arts” Festival could essentially advocate someone masturbating onstage, let alone label it “art”. But whilst River of Fundament has no problems whatsoever with inserting scenes of sex, violence, and depravity into the work, they’re jumbled up and mixed into the broader work. They may lack context in the piece (something which Sprinkle’s act could never be accused of), but such is the nature of the film that pretty much everything lacks context.

Is it Art? Most certainly. Is it good Art? I dunno… probably: it looks and sounds pretty, and certainly gives cause for one to reflect on that which has been presented. Would I see it again? Oh hell no.

[2014075] Roman Tragedies

[2014075] Roman Tragedies

Toneelgroep Amsterdam @ Festival Theatre

2:00pm, Sun 2 Mar 2014

On the third of September last year, there was a little Festival get-together where Artistic Director David Sefton had an on-stage chat with Katrina Sedgwick; as part of their “conversation,” two of the headline acts for the 2014 Festival were announced.

Those two announcements had me more excited than just about any other Festival launch ever.

One, in particular, had me literally squealing with excitement (during the announcement, no less) – but I’ll write about that later. The other was Roman Tragedies, which Sefton loftily announced as one of his Top Ten Shows of all time. And whilst the name of the performance meant nothing to me at the time, two things sold it to me: that it was a trio of Shakespeare plays, and that it was a durational performance.

Now, I’ve got a real love affair with durational shows: The Seven Streams of the River Ota in 1998 was my first (and there’s a lot of emotion associated with that), and I now recall And on the Thousandth Night… a lot more favourably than I expressed at the time. Roll in a bit of Bard, and I was instantly committed to the show… but six hours is quite a roadblock in a Schedule, so I picked the day which impacted other potential shows the least, leading to my acquisition of a ticket for the final performance of Roman Tragedies in Adelaide.

It also meant that I had to put up with two days of people frothing and raving about how good it was via every form of media to which I was exposed.

No matter: on Sunday afternoon, My Time had come. After bumping into fellow Angels Geoff and Sorayya in the foyer, we elbowed our way to the front of the crowds: our intention was to rush the stage for the much-vaunted audience-amongst-the-actors location. Sadly, our manoeuvres were in vain; a stage manager politely informed us that there was to be no on-stage seating until the first set change (about twenty minutes into the performance). Slightly engrumpled, we sat down at the edge of the front row… we were getting prime positions, damn it!

Just in front of us was the orchestra pit, which was crammed with percussive instruments of mostly large size… something which became ear-bleedingly apparent when, with no warning whatsoever, one of the two percussionists in the pit started hammering away at the thunderous drum as a way of introducing the war that opens Coriolanus.

As a narrative primer rolled across multiple red LED moving message signs, the cast ambled onstage and then leapt into a enactment of Coriolanus’ first Act. Actors were miked, and black-clad camera operators roamed the stage capturing the action for projection (with subtitles, as the Shakespearean text has been updated into Dutch) onto screens that served the audience in the auditorium, as well as those who ventured onto the stage. And it’s lovely theatre – rich and nuanced and entertaining, even given the modern overhaul and language barrier – but, if I’m completely honest, that first Act just washed by.

I was waiting for the scene change. Then, at the eighteen minute mark, the house lights came up and the MC gently announced that the audience could join the actors onstage. Geoff and Sorayya and I, in a manner completely not befitting patrons of the Arts, rushed the stage.

Initially, there weren’t too many members of the audience that took the opportunity to hop up onstage – there were still a few seating spaces unused. And from my vantage point, the view was (understandably) different… especially those moments when you find a camera pointed directly at you, with your my ugly mug projected onto the big screens in the background of a scene.

Whilst sitting on the stage was certainly novel, it didn’t really work for me: I found all the craning and twisting required to watch both the action and the translation to be too much exertion for me, especially given the six-hour length of Roman Tragedies. And so, at the second scenery change (forty-nine minutes in, according to the programme), I wandered back into the front row of the stalls, near where I’d sat during the first scene; my neighbours were chatty buggers, though, so at the following change (about fifteen minutes into Julius Caesar, the second of the three Tragedies) I moved into a nice, front-and-centre position… which led to a curious, though tangential, story in itself.

In between scenes (as the audience reconfigured itself on-stage and off-), I got to chatting with the elderly German chap next to me; it turns out that he was supposed to have attended Am I the previous day, and was a victim to the strict lock-out policy. As is my wont, I enthused about the performance (though deliberately downplaying my joy, as I didn’t want him to feel like he’d missed too much); I explained the face-burning opening moments to him, and he chirped “Oh! I was supposed to be in the front row as well.” He pulled out his ticket: he would’ve been in the seat right next to mine. Adelaide!

Back to Roman Tragedies: sitting back in the stalls again gave me a much more comfortable view of proceedings, which helped with my appreciation of the plays… and their staging. Tweets from the audience occasionally scroll across the moving message display, and – in the lead-up to the demise of a major character – uppercase characters threaten THREE MINUTES TO THE DEATH OF JULIUS CAESAR. And the death scenes themselves are often harrowing affairs, capped off by garish fanfares accompanying stylised freeze-frames of prone bodies in the centre of the stage… they owed more to Suda51 than Shakespeare. And that’s awesome.

The overall motif of the presentation – that of a 24-hour news channel – is cunningly used to propel the narrative (through confrontational interviews), and is completely justified by Marc Antony’s “Friends, [Romans,] Countrymen” speech, delivered as a powerfully political election pitch. But Roman Tragedies throws out more subversions of Shakespeare (and the theatrical experience): scenes begin deep in the audience seating in the stalls. Apropos of nothing, there’s a Red Hot Chili Peppers dance break. And when Antony’s lieutenant defects to the camp of Octavian, the actor flees the theatre itself and runs out onto King William Street, followed closely by a cameraman who relays Enobarbus’ anguished pleas to startled pedestrians.

Sure, there were a few blemishes around this performance… but they were all on the audience side of the fence, from chatty members in the Stalls to selfish space-hogs on the stage. Oh, and the small matter of someone who left their mobile phone on, with a loud ringtone, buried in a bag beneath a second row seat. No-one in the vicinity recognised the ring-tone as their own, and it took forty-two rings (hey – I’m a little OCD, I count things like that) before someone found the phone and removed the battery.

But by the time the audience is asked to leave the stage (at the 265-minute mark) – ostensibly to facilitate the appearance of a live snake, bringing with it Cleopatra’s death – everyone appeared to be tragically smitten with the production, whether by the sterling production values of the show, or by the lovey-dovey comic tomfoolery of Antony and Cleopatra, or by the stellar cast, or even by Cleopatra’s sublime stilettos (swoon). And that final hour is brutal, in all the right ways: Cleopatra’s wailing upon Mark Antony’s death was easily the most harrowing display of grief I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre… that, alone, would earn Roman Tragedies a standing ovation. The fact that there’s so many other reasons to shower this production with plaudits is just an indulgent bonus.

Bah. Words are failing me again. Suffice to say that Sefton was right: Roman Tragedies was extraordinary theatre.

[2014071] Am I

[2014071] Am I

Shaun Parker & Company @ Dunstan Playhouse

2:00pm, Sat 1 Mar 2014

Right. So. Ummm…

So… yeah. Clearly I’m struggling to write something here. OK, let’s try this:

Am I was one of the most overwhelmingly wonderful performances I’ve ever seen. Ever. I’ve written about over a thousand shows on this blog, and Am I would be in the Top Five. If not Top Three. Or Two.

But… there’s a little Devil that sits on my shoulder as I write this, and he whispers in my ear: “Sure you loved it, Pete, and raved about it to anyone and everyone in the days and weeks that followed, but not everyone who also saw it shared your views. Some even indicated that they found it a little… well, meh.”

And I’ve listened to that Devil, I really have. I’ve thought long and hard about why this performance affected me so much, about how it managed to worm its way into my brain and stay there, releasing dollops of euphoria whenever I reflect on Am I.

And I reckon I’ve figured it out. And it boils down to one moment, one small fragment in a show that is as impactful as any other I’ve experienced: The Big Bang. But more on that in a moment.

I arrived at the Playhouse via an unsuccessful detour to see the Skywhale, taking my seat in the front row (the best seats I could could find when I bought my tickets relatively late). The neighbours to my left were unimpressed that chunky scruffy-guy was sitting next to them, and the aisle seat to my right remained empty (Am I was a lockout performance)… but more on that later, too. And whilst I’d been attracted to Am I by the intricate and tightly choreographed gestures shown in the Festival’s ads, I wasn’t really sure what to expect… except, I hoped, plenty of movement.

So when Shantala Shivalingappa appeared onstage, her movements imparting precision yet appearing serene, and spoke… I was thrown a little. “Once upon a time” she began, before narrating text that bordered the philosophically mystical… all the while accenting her delivery with deft gestures. Behind her, a wall of lamps occasionally lit up in sequence, like a huge analogue pixelated display; the cool-down of the lamps created a warmth to their part of the storytelling, as the wall showed trickles and pulses and heartbeats.

And then it happened.

The brutal blast of The Big Bang.

At the end of one of Shivalingappa’s lines, without warning, the wall of lamps lit up in unison… not only was the effect temporarily blinding (almost painfully so – I couldn’t look through my glasses), but as the light hit me full-force in the front row, so did the heat. My body felt like it was being washed over by an unstoppable wave of energy, and as the wave passed by – and my eyes recovered – I saw the rest of Shaun Parker’s troupe suddenly standing onstage.

And I started weeping. The manner of their entrance was so physical, yet also so visceral, that the tears seemed to be the only coherent response my brain could come up with. But as soon as I saw them standing there, I knew this was going to be special.

The rest of Am I was an emotional blur, a constant battle between absorbing what was before me and frantically dabbing away the tears of joy that filled my eyes, obscuring my vision. The dancers brought forth a physical interpretation of the narrated text that I found intoxicating; when a collection of glistening batons joined them onstage, their sharp syncopated movements were mesmerising. The choreographed fan of the dancers in a line was amazing; the piece where the narrated items of worship were visualised (starting with gods and deities, familiar and foreign, before the narration spilled into television, Facebook, Twitter) was both poignant and funny.

And then came the glorious ascension of the final piece.

I found myself on my feet applauding before the house lights came up to greet the performers. Am I provided me an absolutely stunning experience: an amazing sense of scale (from intricate hand movements to stage-wide sweeps), a blistering use of technology, and a cooperative melding of text and movement. And that’s not even taking into account the live musical accompaniment, delivered from a suspended platform.

…And now I’ve run out of words again.

Am I. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

[2014067] BigMouth

[2014067] BigMouth

SKaGeN @ Queen’s Theatre

8:00pm, Thu 27 Feb 2014

The buildup to the 2014 Festival had been a little… uneven for me; for all the (profane) joy expressed when Roman Tragedies and the John Zorn shows were announced, the launch of the full programme had left me… well, a little underwhelmed. Sure, Am I looked interesting (wait until I write that post!), and I was keen on Sadeh21, but the rest – while most certainly not yawn-worthy – didn’t get me super-excited.

Of course, the Zorn pre-announcement was a tough act to follow, but I had still expected to feel a bit more giddy.

Still, there were more than a handful of people who’d expressed their interest in BigMouth, and there was no problem getting an opening night ticket… so I find myself checking out the lovely new bar at the Queen’s Theatre and chatting with Ashton before we’re let in to discover the delights of the pyramidical sponge “cushions” on the temporary seating. Hey, I thought that the cushions were great, unfamiliar shapes niggling one’s posterior during the evening… but others were scathing.

No matter: I was ready for the first Festival show of 2014.

The staging was sparse: a wide table with five microphones. A “blackboard” with a series of (some famous, some not-so-famous) names projected onto it. That’s it.

But the monologue that Valentijn Dhaenens managed to create with those names, and deliver with those microphones, was absolutely compelling.

Dhaenens had spent over a year reading over a thousand speeches, and – in a tribute to the significance of oration – constructed BigMouth. Each name on the “blackboard” represented the original orator of a speech, and Dhaenens presented each with considered intonations, more often than not in their original language (the surtitles, it must be said, were excellent). At the conclusion of each of the speeches, the name of the original orator was rubbed off the “blackboard”: this, in itself, was a wonderful touch, with the tension and expectation rising as we hurtled through the performance… there were even a few audible gasps as the erased name revealed the orator, with Osama Bin Laden’s words being juxtaposed against those of George W Bush.

Some of the speeches were immediately recognisable, others curious; sometimes Dhaenens even revelled in beatbox-esque musical renditions. But two moments really stand out in my memory: the middle third was a magnificent loop-driven monster, which saw us battered with a myriad of speeches being delivered in rapid succession to the constructed backbeat; and the constant back’n’forth between speeches from Goebbels and Patton was nothing less than painfully exhilarating. By carefully crafting the tone of delivery, Dhaenens made Patton sound like a megalomaniacal arsehole throughout, with softer, more considered words encouraging empathy for Goebbels… until, quite literally, his final three words, the brutal rage of which turned everything on its head.

I left BigMouth absolutely thrilled. I had walked into the theatre not really knowing what to expect, but what I found was a masterfully crafted piece of theatre that, despite the heavy political content, never felt preachy or superior… more calm, contemplative, open. The words alone were enough to encourage thought far into the night; the presentation was just the icing on the cake.