24 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
War and Peace 
Gob Squad
19 October 2016
Merlyn Theatre
to 20 October 2016

War and Peace in Berlin. Photo by David Baltzer

War and Peace: I know people who've read it. Only about 20 members of the audience had read it. I've thought about reading it. Gob Squad's production hasn't got me any closer.

Gob Squad were last in Melbourne in 2012 at the Melbourne Festival with the their remarkable co-production with Campo Before Your Very Eyes. Formed in 1994, the seven-member company are based in Berlin and say that they work "where theatre meets art, media and read life".

Gob Squad

War and Peace doesn't try to explain Tolstoy's 1869 novel, about Russia during the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812. They know that it's something that you need to experience for yourself in order to understand it – which might well be the point of Tolstoy's novel about war.

With three screens, a table set with delicate snacks and wine, and a gazebo (or war tent) that looks like it belongs in a backyard wedding, the show begins as the audience trickle in and the performers – Tatiana Saphir, Sharon Smith, Bastian Trost and Simon, who are dressed in beige-gold 19th century frocks without skirts, contemporary chunky-soled boots and supportive tights – meet and introduce members of the audience from the stage.

Three willing audience members remain to take part in an on-stage salon where they talk non-confrontational politics and art. Our three were Pier CathewIain Grandage and Sarah (who was reviewing and I'll link it here as soon as I find it). The salon members talk with the performers and sections of each chat are broadcast on the screens, while the others are kept secret.

Watching people think on the spot is fascinating, but the conversations are controlled enough by the performers to be easily forgotten.

As the performance develops away from the salon, the likeable ensemble get deeper into the ideas of the novel by becoming more ridiculously flippant, like Tolstoy's history of dance with a rainbow ribbon. As they can't begin to understand living in world always at war, they explore the ideas of identifying with something – anything or anyone – in the book.

They get closer to being reflective when they talk about their grandparents who lived through the Second World War, but then pull further away because it still doesn't get close to understanding. Maybe a fashion parade of characters is more respectful than trying to reflect on the magnitude of War and Peace.

Being in the theatre with Gob Squad is an absolute pleasure – the parts that make up War an Peace are delightfully funny – but I don't think that's what they are trying to do. Or perhaps the sum of the parts isn't meant to be stronger as a whole. Perhaps I need to read War and Peace.

22 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
Lady Eats Apple
Back to Back Theatre
8 October 2016
Hamer Hall
to 13 October

Lady Eats Apple. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Jeff Busby

I’m still thinking about Back to Back Theatre’s Lady Meets Apple. I want to talk about it, but want to hold it safe and close so that its meaning stays between the performers and me.

The Melbourne Festival world premiere – it’s heading around the world – is a much-anticipated, and well-funded, work by the Geelong-based company that continue to question how the world perceives intellectual disability and theatre.

Following from the sold-out international acclaim of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich (one of the best things I’ve seen), this work started its development with ensemble member Simon Laherty saying he wanted to make a tragedy. The six-member ensemble are the only full-time paid ensemble in Victoria

This tragedy starts with a loved creation myth and the downfall of those who were there.

In an inflated taut black cavern-cum-womb in a disconcerting space somewhere in Hamer Hall, two on-stage roadies in black t-shirts demand more of the dark empty world that they control.

As their god status becomes clear, the pissed-off and insecure young god (Scott Price) –”What if god is one of us?” – thinks that the older and more frustrated god (Brian Lipson) – “Who is like god?” – treats him like a “dumb shit” and declares his one true status by creating animals.  The creatures are named by the first man (Mark Deans) and woman (Sarah Mainwaring), who ask their god for more boundaries than merely knowing that they shouldn’t eat an apple.

When the older god collapses, the blackness disappears – there’s nothing like an audience gasping together – and time begins.

Apparently the next section is 20 minutes, but it could be moments or an eternity as the world becomes white and breathes and move as shapes appear and the music and sounds in our headphones – the whole show is heard through headphones – offer few clues. It’s hard to see if the faraway shadows are human. They look like Ewoks or monks and I think I saw a man carry a long and heavy burden on his shoulder.

Lady Eats Apple. Back to Back Theatre. Photo by Jeff Busby

It ends as the whiteness falls and the audience is faced with the enormity of the orange velvet, three-level emptiness of the concert hall. The secrets are revealed; what was so mysterious and unseeable is clear. And cleaners (Deans, Laherty, Mainwaring, Price and Romany Latham) – the people we never see when we sit in that theatre – fight about their right to take a juicy bite of all that’s on the forbidden but reachable tree.

Its dramaturgy is complex but so gentle that its truth acts more on an unconscious level and doesn’t feel clear until it circles back to its beginning and the extraordinary manifests out of the ordinary.

Under Bruce Gladwin’s direction, Lady Eats Apple confronts audiences with their own perceptions humanity and never allows a moment of ease or complicity as their audience are left to create their own meaning or struggle to understand.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

17 October 2016

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour

Melbourne Festival
Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour
National Theatre of Scotland and Live Theatre
11 October 2016
Fairfax Studio
to 23 October

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Melbourne Fringe. Photo supplied

It was impossible to get a ticket for Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, but it’s running for all of the Melbourne Festival so as many people as possible can sing their praises and toast them with creaming soda mixed with vodka, Cointreau and a bit of advocaat.

Six Catholic school teenagers from the coastal Scottish town of Oban travel to Edinburgh for a choral competition. They have a free afternoon before they have to sing.

There are concerns with illness, sexuality, family and what to do next when you’ve got no money and the chances are high that your class will break the school record for the most pregnancies in one year – but all that can wait because there’s time to dump the uniforms, get drunk and find some action.

Based on Alan Warner’s 1988 book The Sopranos, it was adapted by Lee Hall for the National Theatre of Scotland. The magnificent cast of six also play the supporting characters and never let their girls fall into stereotypes. With three musicians, they perform in what looks like the crappest club in town with peeling paint and a statue of the Virgin keeping an ever-present, if useless, watch and reminding us that the sacred can and does happens everyday.

From the uniforms, smokes, constant swearing, hideous booze mixes, wanting to get it off with anyone and stupid decisions to the exquisite six-part harmonies and love of ELO, the Ladies are my last year at high school. Or what I secretly really wanted it to be.

Surely it’s everyone’s last year at school. Freedom’s so close, but you don’t know how to reach it safely. So much of your future is chance and there’s the nagging fear of growing up and realising that “We’re just a tiny percentage of what we could’ve been”.

It’s bloody brilliant theatre.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

15 October 2016

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: Backstage in Biscuit Land

Melbourne Festival
Backstage in Biscuit Land
13 October 2016
Beckett Theatre
to 16 October

I was sitting on the couch singing a song to my cat and included the lyrics "she likes it hard in the face". If you've been to Backstage in Biscuit Land, you know that I'm living biscuity.

There's one more chance to see this extraordinary, hilarious and attitude-changing show on Sunday*.

Performers Jess Thom and Jess Mabel Jones (known as Chopin) guide each other and their audience on an unforgettable hour of theatre that – even with an emergency script – can never be repeated.

Thom describes herself as an artist, writer and part-time super hero and tells us that the show is like an "octopus impersonating a lemongrass plant". She has Tourette syndrome and her uncontrollable, and unpredictable tics – that include her saying "biscuit" up to 16, 000 times a day – create a new show every time.

Her long-time friend Leftwing Idiot (Matthew Pountney) helped to co-devise the show by insisting that the "crazy language generating machine" that is Tourettes was being wasted if it wasn’t being used creatively. And the Tourettes Hero website encourages everyone to use her thousands of tics as a catalyst for creativity. How can "The hippopotamus of outrageous fortune" not lead to something brilliant? "How many leap years does it take to change a cat into a dragon?"

Backstage in Biscuit Land. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Jonathan Birch

By explaining the misunderstood neurological syndrome and talking about some of her experiences – such as being asked to sit in a sound booth in a theatre, at a show about inclusion – she ensures that it's impossible to leave and not understand the condition. And she invites everyone to laugh with her at her tics.

Which is mostly easy because they are "more exciting than an otter having sex with an avocado" and funnier than any metaphor I could try to construct, but the uncontrollable laughter can turn and bite when her motor tics look painful or we see a bruise or an injury, or when she and Chopin explain what will happen if she has a ticcing fit, which happens multiple times every day.

Her regular "biscuit", "hedgehog", "fuck" and "cat" quickly become normal as she tells us her stories or her tics make a story for Chopin to act out; I will never look at an image of Mother Theresa and not laugh.

As a piece of theatre, they’ve developed ways to control and celebrate the uncontrollable, but what really hits home is realising how closed off our theatre shows and spaces are. We continue to deny people the right to be in a pubic space because of difference or disability.

Is Thom’s own show the only Melbourne Festival show where she could be in the audience?

So, it’s time to change that and make theatre that welcomes difference. It doesn’t have to be every show, but Thom reminded us – based on touring this show for two years – that when you make theatre inclusive and build access into every element of the work, you make it better.

Imagine what shows would be like if we allowed everyone, including ourselves, to react naturally?

*Or head to Brisbane where it's playing at QPAC.

And here's Richard Watts's Smart Arts interview with Jess Thom. She's starts at 00:50:55. But why not listen to the whole show.

13 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
Ancient Rain
12 October 2016
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 15 October

Ancient Rain. Melbourne Festival. Photo supplied

Ancient Rain is far from perfect and still unsure about itself, but it charms with its the imperfection. And it has Camille O'Sullivan, which overcomes any doubts.

Developed by Adelaide companies Brink and Far and Away Productions, it's been co-commissioned by the Melbourne Festival and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It had one performance in Dublin before its short Melbourne run and is heading to Wollongong and Canberra.

Ireland's O'Sullivan and her musical collaborator Feargal Murray joined with Australia's Paul Kelly to write music for a selection of Irish poems from the last 100 years. Except for their depictions of a cruel, cold and desolate world where love struggles against loss, the links between the poems are tenuous and while the individual poems have their own completeness, it's difficult to find what they offer together.

This is reflected in the design of mismatched chairs that could have come from hard rubbish and in Chris Drummond's direction that gives a broad theatrical shape to the individual poems and songs, but lets the singers and musicians (also including Paul Byrne, Dan Kelly, Sokal Koka) find their own paths and connections within the limits.

O'Sullivan has a connection to every emotion that created the poets' words. It's like she finds a hidden place in herself that remembers everything the poets felt and experienced. There's a degree of character, but she sings like every song and word is hers.

Her singing of The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks by Paula Meehan, about the 1984 death of a 15-year-old giving birth under the statue, left the room so silent that individual tears could be heard sliding down cheeks.

Her pure emotion contrasts with Kelly, who holds back on emotion and – like the poets – lets the words have their own power. This is far more powerful when he sings – some poems are spoken – and lets music add the unconscious emotion.

The combination of styles could cancel each other out, but they support each other and fill in the emotional spaces that the other misses. She gives his unspoken emotions an almost corporeal form; he gives her the emotional distance that’s needed to find understanding.

Both are voices that are difficult to forget. This could be because neither force their voices to be anything other than the sound they hear in their heads. O’Sullivan could have a clear, pitch-perfect voice, but she lets herself be husky and raw. Kelly could belt out like a rock god, but he sings like he speaks.

Ancient Rain began with poetry and finds its way back to the poets by giving them voice in voices that the poets may never have heard in their heads, but are the voices that might bring new readers to their works.

The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks 
by Paula Meehan

It can be bitter here at times like this,
November wind sweeping across the border.
Its seeds of ice would cut you to the quick.
The whole town tucked up safe and dreaming,
even wild things gone to earth, and I
stuck up here in this grotto, without as much as
star or planet to ease my vigil.

The howling won't let up. Trees
cavort in agony as if they would be free
and take off — ghost voyagers
on the wind that carries intimations
of garrison towns, walled cities, ghetto lanes
where men hunt each other and invoke
the various names of God as blessing
on their death tactics, their night manoeuvres.
Closer to home the wind sails over
dying lakes. I hear fish drowning.
I taste the stagnant water mingled
with turf smoke from outlying farms.

They call me Mary — Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.

It can be lovely here at times. Springtime,
early summer. Girls in Communion frocks
pale rivals to the riot in the hedgerows
of cow parsley and haw blossom, the perfume
from every rushy acre that's left for hay
when the light swings longer with the sun's push north.

Or the grace of a midsummer wedding
when the earth herself calls out for coupling
and I would break loose of my stony robes,
pure blue, pure white, as if they had robbed
a child's sky for their colour. My being
cries out to be incarnate, incarnate,
maculate and tousled in a honeyed bed.

Even an autumn burial can work its own pageantry.
The hedges heavy with the burden of fruiting
crab, sloe, berry, hip; clouds scud east
pear scented, windfalls secret in long
orchard grasses, and some old soul is lowered
to his kin. Death is just another harvest
scripted to the season's play.

But on this All Souls' Night there is
no respite from the keening of the wind.
I would not be amazed if every corpse came risen
from the graveyard to join in exaltation with the gale,
a cacophony of bone imploring sky for judgement
and release from being the conscience of the town.

On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out into the night,
far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn't lift a finger to help her,
I didn't intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God's ear.

On a night like this I number the days to the solstice
and the turn back to the light.
O sun,
centre of our foolish dance,
burning heart of stone,
molten mother of us all,
hear me and have pity.

12 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
The Money
Prahran Town Hall
8 October 2016
to 23 October  in other venues

The Money. Melbourne Festival. Photo supplied

The Money is every meeting I’ve ever been to.

Created by UK-based company Kaleider, it’s part game, immersive theatre and live art. And almost fly-on-the-wall live documentary.

A group of ticket buyers known as the “benefactors” have an hour to unanimously decide how to spend a small pile of money – different amounts each session – while being watched by an audience of “silent witnesses” and an unknowable audience of people watching the live stream. Silent witnesses can become benefactors at any time by adding $20 onto the pile.

Sessions run throughout the festival in the Prahran Town Hall, Footscray Town Hall and Parliament of Victoria, Legislative Assembly Chamber.

The choice of venue resonates deeply.

Like almost every meeting I’ve ever been to – from government public safety meetings to friends choosing a restaurant – everyone was overly polite and wanted to take the shortest route to the easiest discussion. This game could have been over in ten minutes with a decision to donate to the Asylum Seeker’s Resource Centre.

Which would have been very dull theatre and not even a fun game.

But the rules are that the discussion has to take an hour. So next came the “how do you decide what constitutes good charity” conversations and arguing if $370 can make really make any difference. I almost fell into an old habit of minute taking as the too-familiar conversations continued.

Then silent witness Geoff put in $20 and said he was going to be an “arse hat” and veto any decision to give to charity.

Most in the group thought he was part if the game. He wasn’t.

He wanted them to follow the rules and be creative and at least consider something “evil or fun”.

As it was one member’s birthday (25), they discussed taking her out or buying her the tattoo she wanted. But someone had learnt from Geoff and vetoed it because she didn’t like tattoos.

So with minutes left, the group were further away from a decision than they had been a few minutes in.

The final decision was rushed. It wasn’t one that everyone liked. It wasn’t any better than any of the other suggestions. The faces of the silent witnesses said that the room didn’t support it.

This was still almost every meeting I have ever been to.

No one is really happy and it’s not the best decision. It’s just the one that everyone agrees on.

It’s how decisions are made in working groups, judging panels, boards, committees and governments.

Most are last-minute compromises based on time, exhaustion, frustration and a desire to get the hell out of there.

There are other ways.

I think that’s what The Money wants us to remember.

Then Geoff withdrew his objection to the charity donation – note that a new rule has since been added: No giving to charity – and the decision swung back to the first one. And no one cared that the person who put the donation on her credit card got a good tax deduction, credit card points and a pile of cash. A pile of cash that could have been given to the homeless guy with black diabetic toes sitting metres away from the venue, or to a tattoo artist to give a 25-year-old a story that she’d be able to tell until she could no longer tell stories.

This review was on AussieTheatre.com .

09 October 2016


Melbourne Festival
Two Dogs
National Theatre of China 
6 October 2016
Merlyn Theatre
to 9 October 2016

Two Dogs. Melbourne Festival. Photo supplied

Director Meng Jinghui is a cult theatre superstar in China and the National Theatre of China is one of the most influential companies in Asia. I can’t think of an equivalent Australian company, but maybe his works are seen with the kind of obsession that Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is seen in New York. Since its debut in 2006, Two Dogs has been performed around the world over 1000 times by Liu Xiaoye and Wang Yin. And with its high degree of improvisation – the running time ranges from 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes – fans come back.

With only four chances to see it at the Melbourne Festival, and I have no doubt that many are seeing it more than once.

Apart from the people who walked out, clearly unimpressed that anyone dare perform work that they don’t understand.

The company’s Rhinoceros in Love was at MIAF 2011 and Meng was brought to Melbourne by Malthouse theatre to direct The Good Person of Szechuan in 2014. After being totally lost in Rhinoceros but totally understanding Szechuan, I thought I was ready to break down all language barriers for Two Dogs.

But it’s not as simple as language.

As the two dogs leave their rural home for the city, the influence of Brecht is clear, the deconstruction of Chinese traditional theatre is easily assumed, and the commentary on contemporary television culture is shared – and that’s where the understanding nearly ends.

The subtitles don’t sync with action and most are stuck being too literal to make sense – except “Actor Improvising” – which also leaves them too easy for English speakers to laugh at.

I think it’s like describing the Little Baby Cheeses statue in Kath and Kim as “A woman buys cheese for her mother”. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t get near the multiple levels of ingrained cultural understanding that support the joke; let alone explain language and accents, suburban Christianity, Fountaingate shopping centre, frizzy hair or why Aussie kids like a “noice” cheese in their lunchbox.

I’m certain that Two Dogs is genius comedy. The mostly Mandarin-speaking (and mostly young) audience were in tears. Friends repeated phrases heard on stage, people were rocking in their seats and whipped out mobile phones when the performers sang.

During the improvisations, I hoped they were talking about the white grumpy people in the room who had come to the Festival for some Chinese culture and wisdom and so far the only thing they understood was a fart joke.

The joyous insanity of Two Dogs is so much more than getting the jokes. There’s something liberating about being surrounded by something that you know you’re so close to understanding, but can’t find the way in. And if you laugh when everyone else laughs, it’s easy to enjoy yourself and feel fantastic for having laughed for over two hours – even if you’re just laughing at yourself.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: You and me and the space in between

Melbourne Festival
You and me and the space in between
Terrapin Puppet Theatre 
7 October 2016
Beckett Theatre
to 9 October 2016

You and me and the space in between. Melbourne Festival. Photo supplied

I wonder if we go to theatre to re-create, or discover, the childhood experience of sitting in a loving lap and being read a story.

Hobart’s Terrapin Puppet Theatre have been creating and touring children’s theatre since 1981. You and me and the space in between only has four days at the Melbourne Festival and continues this festival’s dedication to ensuring that children and their families can see amazing theatre that’s made for them.

Finegan Kruckemeyer’s story of The Proud Circle Island is like falling into the pages of a storybook. With a paper design (Jonathon Oxlade), the pages come alive with iPad animation (Oslo Davis), live music (Dean Stevenson), puppetry (Felicity Horsley) and the comforting narration of Eve (Katherine Tonkin), who likes wondering about things and was 12 when the water on her island began to rise.

As their home is threatened by the sea, the people decide to leave “all there was” and row their island to through the sea in the hope of finding a place where people will welcome them to safety. They find a land very different to their island and the people of both places meet with a recognisable mix of curiosity and fear.

The allegories are clear, but Sam Routledge’s direction ensures that story and its characters are always at the centre of the many circles. Its telling is welcoming and gentle, even in its dark and scary places, and reminds us all that whispered ideas are as powerful as shouty ones.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

02 October 2016

What to see on the last day of the Fringe

Melbourne Fringe

What to see on the last day of the Melbourne Fringe?

Tessa Waters

Most of the Melbourne Fringe is over BUT not all of it. I'm off to La Mama to see Blaaq Catt and Hart. 

Those shows are sold out, but you can still see Neal Portenza...Tracey at 8.15 and Tessa Waters: WERQ in Progress at 7.15 at The Courthouse Hotel – where there's also good food, good beer, board games and $10 Espresso Martinis.

I've seen 38 shows this Fringe. If I can* get from Carlton to North Melbourne, I am going to try to get to Tessa and Neal AGAIN. Tessa's in a work that changes every night and I really didn't see what Neal's Tracey has turned into.

And they are two of the funniest and smartest clowns around.


(*My La Mama show finishes 5 mins before Tessa's starts, so unlikely.)

Review: Neil Portenza ... Tracey

Melbourne Fringe
Neal Portenza has run out of room for his full show title. Tracey
Neal Portenza
29 September 2016
Courthouse Hotel
to 2 October

Neal Portenza. Photo by Kristy Sheilds

Even though The Courthouse Hotel has $10 espresso martinis and is a 30 second walk from The North Melbourne Town Hall, the Fringe crowds haven't drifted over.

As the Town Hall shows have closed, TODAY is Melbourne's opportunity to make Neal Portenza has run out of room for his full show title. Tracey a standing-room only performance.

If you regret it, I'll shout you an expresso martini and a turkish delight.

My review is on The Age/SMH.

We will forever be known as the Portenza Nine.