25 October 2015

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: The New York Narratives

New York Narratives
Melbourne Festival & Arts House Melbourne

The New York Narratives mini program within the Melbourne Festival is the beginning of an exchange between New York's PS122 and Melbourne's Arts House.

In 1980, PS122 was an artist squat in an old school in the East Village and is now an international leader of contemporary performance that presents and commissions artists "whose work challenges boundaries of live performance".

Established in 2005 by the Melbourne City Council, Arts House Melbourne is one of Australia's leading presenters and supporters of independent contemporary artists.

Before sending Australian artists to New York next year, Arts House shared 12 PS122 projects – performance, film and installation – with the Melbourne Festival and the ones I saw were the works I think I'll remember the most from this festival.

Bronx Gothic

Bronx Gothic. Photo by Sarah Walker

Okwui Okpokwasili's Bronx Gothic was the first show I saw this festival and it left me struggling for words. This was dance theatre made words feel inadequate to describe the experience of sharing and being trusted with this story.

Okpokwasili begins with her bare back towards the audience in the corner of a room surrounded by white curtains. Her movement is somewhere between a shimmy, an orgasm, a fit and demonic possession. It's controlled but without a hint of tension, and disconcertingly mesmerising. As it's hard to tell if she's in pleasure or pain, the need to see her face and to understand is almost overwhelming.

When she stops – exhausted and sweating – she reads the letters between two 11-year-old girls; one is her. At first, it's a welcoming recognition of discovering sexuality and sex with talk of titties and periods. But it doesn't feel like the opening dance, or the songs and dance that are between the letters. 

As her 11-year-olds talk about hard dicks and the taste of cum, the deeper truth of her story and an understanding of the dance reveals itself. At a very nice, kind-of-elite arts festival full of very nice, kind-of-elite people, we're shown a world where a little girl screams at herself for being an ugly nigger.

Drawing on the gothic tradition of sharing letters and the themes of blood, superstition and unseen horror, Okpokwasili's story of sexual abuse, internalised-hatred and blood left me feeling like my heart had slopped onto the floor.

The Shipment

Young Jean Lee's Theater Company - THE SHIPMENT (5min) from Young Jean Lee on Vimeo.

Young Jean Lee's The Shipment, filmed in Seattle in 2009, was part of the Stage to Screen program (films on screen) that I wish I'd seen all of. Would love to see a similar program in non-festival time.

Young Jean Lee was at the 2012 Melbourne Festival with We're All Gonna Die. I described it as "an "not at all theatrey, a little bit hipstery and likely to make you cry (for yourself, in a good way) and sing" and knew that, given the chance, I'd see anything she made.

Working an African American cast – she's Korean American – , The Shipment attempts to address the black experience in a work that includes in-your-face standup, sketch and a living room drama. The tone's astonishing; move a bit either way and it's racist, offensive shit or soppy, self indulgent shit. But it's neither, which left some of the audience huffing out and some of us crying with laughter.


YOUARENOWHERE. Photo by Sarah Walker

During it's run, Andrew Schneider's YOUARENOWHERE was the Fight Club of shows that could only be talked about among people who had experienced it knock the air out of us.

And I can't ruin it for anyone who will see it in the future. If you have the chance, go.

A what-the-fucking-fuck, jaw-dropping combination of technology, science fiction, physics and the purest of human interaction, it gave me something I hadn't seen before; I can't ask for anything more than that.
Performance Space 122 provides incomparable experiences for audiences by presenting and commissioning artists whose work challenges boundaries of live performance. PS122 is dedicated to supporting the creative risks taken by artists from diverse genres, cultures and perspectives. We are an innovative local, national and international leader in contemporary performance. - See more at: http://www.ps122.org/about/mission/#sthash.ktjYDmBO.dpuf
Performance Space 122 provides incomparable experiences for audiences by presenting and commissioning artists whose work challenges boundaries of live performance. PS122 is dedicated to supporting the creative risks taken by artists from diverse genres, cultures and perspectives. We are an innovative local, national and international leader in contemporary performance. - See more at: http://www.ps122.org/about/mission/#sthash.ktjYDmBO.dpuf

Acting Stranger

Read about Michael Dwyer's big-screen debut in The Age

Acting Stranger is a live art project with Andrew Schnieder wanting to create moments of intimacy between strangers.

Thirty two Melbourne people signed up to learn a scene, turn up in a public place and perform the scene with Schneider  – no rehearsal, no second take – and walk away without speaking. The scenes were filmed with a camera that was hidden in plain sight.

The scenes are available at actingstranger.com  – today only the New York ones are up, but the Melbourne ones are on their way.

The Melbourne ones had one screening at ACMI. The project was originally not going to be filmed, then only seen on the internet – Schneider says that the he's still working on how it works. But to see them one after the other on a huge screen brought a dimension to the project that the creators themselves hadn't seen.

There's something fascinating about watching people who aren't acting but are aware that they are being watched (the non-actor volunteers were always more interesting). And there's something more addictive about watching people who pass through the scene with no awareness of the camera. But what was most amazing was watching Schneider and his co-creator (whose name I've forgotten) as they saw something they filmed over two days, in a strange city, with strangers, while Schneider was performing another piece at night.

from New York with amazing passers by


Griffin Theatre Company & State Theatre Company of South Australia
Presented by Melbourne Festival
24 October 2015
The Sumner
to 25 October

Masquerade. Nathan O'Keeefe Photo by Brett Boardman

Kate Mulvany’s gorgeous adaption of Kit Williams's picture book Masquerade celebrates why picture books and stories are so important to children and why whenever a child asks you to read them a book, you stop what you are doing and read them a book. You’ll never regret that choice.

At today's post-show Q and A, Mulvany talked about how Masquerade was the distraction she needed when she was in hospital with cancer as a child.  She want on to explain how when, as an adult, she finally contacted Williams, she flew to his UK home where he served her rabbit pie and gave her the rights to his book – on the condition that her story be a part of the new story.

Published in 1979, his book is about the Moon (Kate Cheel) sending Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe) on a quest to deliver a gold amulet to her love, the Sun (Mikelangelo, in the dazzling role he was born to play). But what made this book insanely popular is that each page is filled with riddles and clues that identify the spot where the real gold amulet was buried. It was found in the early 1980s, but possibly by accident. And the lack of amulet doesn’t make the riddles and clues any more fascinating today.

At the heart of this adaption is the story about Joe (Louis Fontain), a child with cancer, and Tessa (Helen Dalimore), his mum who needs hope  – "Mum, why do you let them do that to me?" – as she shares the book with her son. With original music by Mikelangleo and Pip Branson, performed by the ever-divine Black Sea Gentlemen, their story continues after the last page with an adventure that lets Joe and Tessa help Jack Hare to revist Penny Pockets (Zindzi Okenyo) and the book characters and learn why The Man Who Plays The Music That Makes The World Go Around (Branson) sometimes stops.

With a design by Anna Cordingly that’s inspired by the book but created for the mood and complex delight of this version, direction by Sam Strong and Lee Lewis that never lets the story drop and always keeps hope, this is the sort of theatre that promises children that theatre is wonderful and reminds grown ups that a story about love is always the right choice.

Today (Sunday) is the last day of the Melbourne Festival. It’s been amazing and I can’t think of a better way to end it than to see one of the last two performances of Masquerade.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

23 October 2015

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: Monkey ... Journey to the West

Monkey ... Journey to the West
Kim Carpenter's Theatre of Image
Melbourne Festival co-commission
22 October 2015
Geelong Performing Arts Centre
to 24 October

Monkey...Journey to the West. Photo by Justin Nicholas

Geelong only feels a long way away when you're in peak hour traffic, otherwise it's an easy drive – or catch the train.

I didn't get into Monkey Magic when it replaced The Goodies on the ABC in the 1980s, but this production has made me fall in love with the story.

If you have kids and want them to see some totally gorgeous theatre, there are three shows left.

My review is in The Age.

20 October 2015


Melbourne Festival & UnionPay International
17 October 2015
Sumner Theatre
to 19 October

Sydney season: 23, 24 & 25 October. Details: sydneyfestival.org.au.

Desdemona. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Mark Allan

The Melbourne Festival production of Peter Sellars Desdemona sold out. With reactions ranging from  "tedious" – there were walk outs and some impressive snoring – to genius, it's been talked about a lot. I'm in the genius camp. I was engrossed, fascinated and enchanted by a work that's equally as meditative and relaxing as it's demanding and forceful.

American Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison and Malian musician Rokia Traoré wrote their reflection on Shakespeare's Othello via email.

Set in an afterlife where people become their true selves, the now-adult Desdemona meets the woman who brought her up, her mother's slave Barbary – referenced once in the text. Traoré sings as Barbary, with two female backing vocalists and two male musicians, and Tina Benko speaks Morrison's text as Desdemona.

The contrast is far more than the obvious black and white. Traoré sings like there's nothing guarding her emotions. It's music that is felt more than heard and the projected translations of her songs are barely necessary. Benko relies on the meanings of her words. Her Desdemona is trying to break free of what she wanted to see as true love and hides behind a wall of anger and confusion that is torn down even when she doesn't want it to be.  Both remarkable performances feed the other without diluting each other's power or story.

In this place they are able to see their relationship through the eyes of the other. Barbary – which wasn't her real name; it was what the English called Africa – saw herself as a slave, with no rank and no choice, who did whatever child The Desdemona wanted. Desdemona saw Barbary as her real mother, her best friend, and the only person who loved and comforted her. She also saw her position as young woman "on the cusp of unmarriageability" as one where her choices were as limited as Barbary's. However, she wanted to love like Barbary and chose a man worthy of her. She married Othello, the only black man she'd met.

Desdemona also meets and shares her meetings with the other dead, including her servant Emilia, her mother, Othello's mother and Othello. Knowing the story helps, but this work is about the relationships between characters so it's not necessary

I haven't read Othello well, but this production let me see it from perspectives that I had never have thought of. And this is the heart of how Sellars creates theatre.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

And here's an extra reflection on its director Peter Sellars.

In the middle of an amazing Melbourne Festival program – one that has taken me by surprise – my favourite hour, so far,  has been Peter Sellars's artist talk on a Friday afternoon.

I've been a fan of Sellars since I saw his production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, set in New York's Trump Towers, on the tv in the 1990s. (Who'd have thought then what Trump'd be trying to do now). Even on a tiny screen with subtitles, I was totally engaged in a story that felt like it was written for the world I lived in. It made me look at opera differently.

Then I discovered his work with composer John Adams (I want every opera – every theatre – experience to leave me feeling like Nixon in China does) and was beyond excited when he was apointed director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival. That appointment didn't have a happy ending, but when I asked Sellars about it, he said that surely being rejected by a dull conservative government for programming community and Indigenous work was a good thing.

At his talk, he told us how Desdemona started many years ago as at a long lunch with Morrison and him mentioning Othello's inherent racism and it being a text past its "use-by date". Toni had some things to say about that. Sellars went on to create an Othello set in Washington, just after Obama was elected, and Morrison responded with Desdemona.

Sellars – who has a mohawk perfect for a receding hairline, wears bright print shirts and beads, and hugs every person he meets like they are a long-lost friend –  talks about art as using collaboration, skill, craft and sophistication to create a space that preciously didn't exist.

This space, in his case a stage, is where people come to meet and discuss. It's a space that defines what it means to be human and lets us see the world from another person's perspective. It's all about perspective. He says how one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist, so theatre is about finding ways to share other perspectives and find the common and inclusive place where we are all human.

Or, "It's like telling your father something they don't want to hear."

I have days where I am sick of the abuse and eyerolling I get when I talk about missing voices on stage, discuss the politics and assumptions undermining a production, or despair that I want theatre to be something that questions rather than distracts us for an hour or so. I have plenty of distractions in my life, I want to see theatre that shows me something I haven't seen or thought about before; I want to see the world though someone else's eyes.

As his perspective of Othello changed when he saw it through Toni's eyes, Sellars invites us to see Desdemona through the eyes we may never have thought of seeing it through.

19 October 2015

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: Masquerade homework

Griffin Theatre Company & State Theatre Company of South Australia
22–25 October
The Sumner

"It's been an anti climax since I found it."

17 October 2015


The Bacchae
St Martins, Fraught Outfit, Melbourne Festival, Theatre Works
14 October 2015
Theatre Works
to 24 October 2015

The Bacchae. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Pia Johnson

I didn't take my eyes off the stage and am still trying to fully understand the astonishingly beautiful, often disturbing and totally unapologetic adaption of The Bacchae created by Adena Jacobs, Aaron Orzech and a cast of teenage women from St Martin's youth theatre.

Euripides's The Bacchae is about the god Dionysus coming to Thebes disguised as a human and generally wreaking havoc with the women of the city who head to the hills and get up to all sorts of drunken, sensual and violent mischief. An angry, and pervy, king dresses as a woman, heads are torn off and most of the action can only be described because it's too much for moral and sensitive audiences.

If you know the Euripides play, it's all on the stage, even though it's told  through live music and dream-cum-nightmare visions with a blow up pool, an inflatable Luna Park smile and blood the colour of gold. There's only a page of the text, and after Dionysus's birth from Zeus's thigh, it's told from the women's point of view. The whole story is re-imagined with young women as all the characters. Dionysus – the god so often envisioned with a huge cock and women at his feet – is a teenage girl who slept in and doesn't have time to straighten her hair.

Let that sink in: young women are the gods and rulers. Not only are they the possessed and riotous mob, they are the people who cause and punish the violence and chaos. And when they become drunk and out of control, they become young men – with long fluffy phallus.  If you're a young man who wonders how young women see you, please see this.

The night I went, there was a school group in the audience. They were silent, in a can't-stop-watching way. Do I even need to say more about the power of this production?

If you don't know the play – and why should you?; embrace every re-telling as a new story – it's a world where young women are the storytellers, the exploiters and the exploited.

It lets us see how they see themselves compared to how they think the world sees them. We meet them as their unique selves wearing denim and t-shirts but they become faceless, oiled bodies in identical bikinis. It's uncomfortable to make the connections between the identifiable teenagers talking about Vegemite toast to the unidentifiable objectified bodies. Which is what makes it so brilliant.

Yesterday I was driving along Warrigal Road and stopped at the North Road intersection. There's a place called Kittens Car Wash where young women in bikinis wash cars. A blow up sex doll holds balloons at the entrance. It's a busy intersection in the semi-industrial suburbs and thousands and thousands of cars stop and see young women in bikinis washing cars.

This is why we need to see young women in our theatres saying how this isn't the world they want to live in. The Bacchae shows us what they think we see when we look at them. They see the objectification, the reduction to sexual pleasure giver (not takers) and a world where they might have to wash cars in a bikini to pay their rent, uni fees or childcare.

And they're saying no.

This is also on AussieTheatre.com.

13 October 2015

11 October 2015


The Rabbits
Melbourne Festival, Arts Centre Melbourne, Opera Australia, Barking Gecko, West Australian Opera, Perth International Arts Festival
10 October 2015
Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse
to 13 October

The Rabbits is an hour-long opera based on a 1998 children's picture book. Its Melbourne Festival season is sold out and as the Playhouse exploded with joy at the end of last night's performance, it's clear that this remarkable new Australian opera is going to be around for a very long time.

Adapted and directed by Barking Gecko's John Sheedy, it's a co-production with Opera Australia in association with WA Opera and was commissioned by the Perth and Melbourne festivals. Ostensibly an opera for children, it’s an amazing introduction to the form and sound of opera – and the many children who saw it were mesmerised  – but its levels of complexity and understanding never excludes an adult audience.

The original book is a 32-page, 228-word analogy about English-style rabbits invading and colonising a country of marsupials. It won awards, has been published all over the world, and remains a best seller and favourite book with John Marsden's powerful words and Shaun Tan's exquisite illustrations, which can’t be seen without finding something new. This production captures the heart and essence of the book and brings it to stage by creating characters from a story that doesn't have characters.

It begins with the introduction of a narrator, a white bird inspired from the brolgas on the end pages (the decorative pages inside the cover) and is told through five marsupials (Hollie Andrew, Jessica Hitchcock, Lisa Maza, Marcus Corowa and David Leha) and five rabbits (Kanen Breen, Nicholas Jones, Christopher Hillier, Simon Meadows and Robert Mitchell). Images like the steam-punk-like bike the rabbits enter on, handing a cog to the marsupials, and a lizard in the test tube are moments that are easy to miss on the pages but have become the turning points and drive of the stage story.

Lally Katz incorporates the Marden's sparse text into the libretto and lets the characters, who are inspired by the illustrations, tell their personal stories and do what they can’t do in the book: reflect on their actions.

Kate Miller-Heidke's composition and Iain Grandage's arrangements and additional music is welcoming to new ears and to opera buffs, who can spot the references. The combination of English-style opera and a more contemporary music-theatre style celebrates the sound and form of opera, while never being afraid to embrace music that isn’t associated with old-style opera.

Without trying to capture the endless complexity of the illustrations, Gabriela Tylesova's design takes details and makes them so real that it feels like walking into the world of the book. The mask and costumes for the marsupials and rabbits look like Tan's creatures but allow the performers to be seen (similar in style to Julie Taymor's Lion King design). And with lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, the scene where the babies fly away on kites is almost too much to bear.

With the September release of the National Opera Review, there's a lot of discussion about the value of opera as a form and of the ongoing existence of Australia's subsidised opera companies.

Then along comes The Rabbits. This is an Australian story made with Australian voices that shows how wonderful Australian opera can be. Along with last year’s co-production of The Riders by Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre, it's time to be excited about opera in Australia and time to stop asking if opera has a place, but to ask why our resources aren't being used to make more productions like this.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

The Rabbits. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Jon Green

03 October 2015


26 September 2015
Fringe Hub, in a Honda Jazz
to 3 October

From genuinely unnerving to simply gorgeous, Suburbia was one of my favourite experiences at the Fringe.

It's also been sold out for days.

The audience of three – the other two with me were on a date; I hope they stay together for ever and always remember this night – get into the back seat of a Honda Jazz and a silent driver presses play on the CD player and takes off around the lanes, back streets and glad-to-be-in-a-car dead ends.

Along the way we see parts of street scenes of violence, love, comfort and Christmas puddings. Drivers change, we taken to parts of the area that I didn't know existed, and we're eventually asked to get out the car...

I'd have loved to see more of link between the vignettes but part of the experience is imagining the story that might be going on, especially as some the most wonderful moments were when real life intruded: a train going past, a dog on a leash pooing, a balcony of people filming with their phones.

MELBOURNE FRINGE: The Audience Dies at the End

The Audience Dies At The End
28 September 2015
Tuxedo Cat
to 4 October

This one runs until Sunday and it's on at the gorgeous new Tuxedo Cat.

Review in SMH/Age.

02 October 2015

MELBOURNE FRINGE: 6 Degrees of Ned Kelly

6 Degrees of Ned Kelly
1 October 2015
The 86
to 4 October

Melita Rowston's paternal grandfather told the story of how he nicked Ned Kelly's bones from the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1929. Her maternal great great great grandmother ran a pub in Wangaratta and refused entry to Ned and co. Melita wanted to find out the truth of her family stories. The result is part mystery, part travelogue and a fascinating and funny exploration of Australia's fascination with Kelly.

She uncovers facts like Kelly’s bones were nicked in 1929 and, even though the coffins had been filled with lime and should have been squish, Kelly’s skeleton missed out. And she finds records in Wangaratta hotels from the time. You have to go along to find out more. And that’s before she explores stories like Steve Hart and Dan Kelly surviving the Glenrowan fire that declared them dead.

As she visits historical Kelly gang towns, she shares the wonderfully bizarre memorials – log art and robots – and meets equally wonderful people who are certain that they have less than 6 degrees of separation to Ned Kelly.

If any of these stories are correct, then Melita’s degrees of separation could be as close as two. If you want to get your degrees of separation closer to Kelly, you know you have to see her show.

This was on AussieTheatre.com .

01 October 2015


Hotel Now
29 September 2015
Sokol Melbourne (next to Fringe Hub)
to 2 October 2015

Simone French and Cait Spiker are 2014 VCA acting graduates and have created an hilarious, high-res, super-colour look at being a young woman.

There's men and sex in their astro-turf and blow-up pool-toy world but this is an exploration of how women get competitive and how so much of the high-maintenance Barbie-sweet or slut-fierce behaviour is often more about being better than your friends.

And there are free lollies in the foyer!


Sad Digger Mad Mary
Hotel Now
29 September2015
Fringe Hub, Parlour Room
to 3 October 2015

Would you like some Mary Poppins with your queer deconstruction of the Anzac myth? Hell yes!

Tom Halls is Sad Digger. He's on a beach on Anzac Cove when Mad Mary popper-popping Poppins (also Halls) flies down to give him a spoonful of tough love and perspective.

A bit drag, a bit rant, a bit homage, and a bit WTF, Sad Digger Mad Mary explores how the memories of good Aussie boys fighting for god and country are as far from the truth as Mad Mary's arrival in Anzac Cove.

I'd like to see a bit more reflection on the First World War part of the show, especially as it's made by a man in his 20s, who, even with skinny legs and frizzy hair, would have been sent to fight. And I want to see it developed further.

Here's James Jackson's review on AussieTheatre.com.