29 August 2019

Review: Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing.

Supersense Festival
Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing
Arts Centre Melbourne
24 August 2019
to 24 August

"Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing" Photo by Lucie Jansch

Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing.

He sure does. He's been doing so since 2012 and did it twice in Melbourne on Saturday.

I nearly missed it as I was stuck in the White Night crowds: thousands of people looking at pretty lights and pictures on buildings and hoping for adventure on the traffic-free city streets. They might struggle with a show about the art of nothing. I was with them for a while. Where is the art in nothing?

The stage is contained by blue-white light and filled with banners written in upper case hand-painted black letters. They look like sentences, but they are mostly just words. These words become very familiar over the next hour or so. The floor is covered with scrunched up balls of paper that are so evenly spread that someone must know exactly how many balls per square metre of stage. Wilson, now in his 70s, sits at a desk. Wearing a white linen shirt and pants and white make up, he looks like a character in a Robert Wilson show. Another man, with black and white make up, stands on a level above Wilson's right under a screen and there's a bed to Wilson's left to complete the diagonal line. Their precise movement is easy to miss and the music is less than screeching but heading to an overbearing squeal of two notes.

John Cage (1912-92) was an American composer and theorist. The most-common way into discovering him is in his 1952 composition 4' 33". Played or performed on any instrument, it's four minutes and 33 seconds of silence; I first saw it performed on a toy piano. It's the kind of acclaimed genius that makes people scoff at minimalist theatre and love the pretty of White Night adventures. But it's still performed – a lot. Without Cage, we may not have the likes of Phillip Glass, John Adams, Terry Riley, Michael Nyman, Henryk G√≥recki or any of the background music I used to play at dinner parties.

Lecture on Nothing (1959) is written like a  piece of music, there are pauses and repetition.
       and repetition.       
       and repetition.
It's as much form as it's about form, and as much performance as it's about performance. It floats in that strange space that understands the art as it claims to be ephemeral.

There are plenty of lectures about the lecture, which was published in book – but this is a performance.

Robert Wilson (b 1941) is a theatre director and artists who is best known for Einstein on the Beach, his collaboration with composer Phillip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs. First seen in 1976, it's a show that lives up to its own legend. We've been privileged in Melbourne to have seen Einstein twice and had Wilson's works feature at Melbourne festivals.

When the music/noise stops, Wilson is alone on the stage. He takes a page from the pile of pages in front of him. It's a very large pile. As it takes a couple minutes to read each page, there's a ripple of fear that the 70-minute running time was a lie. Art can lie. Is he really going to read it, like the title says?

It's odd to have to listen to Robert Wilson theatre. So much of his work is about unspoken communication. Maybe the words really matter this time? Maybe.

But soon he's talking about structure and I'm there.

When I teach, new writers roll their eyes when I tell them that the secret to writing is structure, and that talent and creativity are the maple-flavoured dust on the icing on the cake layered with word play and metaphor. Structure's my way into understanding and letting go of any understanding about this nothing.

Robert Wilson performs John Cages Lecture On Nothing is as earnestly serious as it's disrespectfully funny. Some people scurry out – I wonder what they expected? – some laugh and others nod in understanding as the refrain of "More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere" becomes profound and totally ridiculous.

If you dig the work of Wilson and Cage, you were probably there and you'll see it again if you get the chance.

24 August 2019

Review: Australian Realness

Australian Realness
Malthouse Theatre
22 August 2019
Merlyn Theatre
to 8 September

"Australian Realness" Photo by Pia Johnson

In 2011, someone* told me to see a play in a terrace in Fitzroy during the Melbourne Fringe and I was blown away at the original voices and capture of what it was like to be 20ish woman. One of the creators of I know there's a lot of noise outside but you have to close your eyes was Zoey Dawson. I think I've seen all of her significant plays since then; some (like Conviction and The Unspoken Word is Joe) have blown me away at their original voice and capture of what it's like to a theatre person in Melbourne.

Australian Realness is Dawson's first mainstage show at Malthouse. It begins as the kind of lets-laugh-very-gently-at-our-middle-class-selves-without-being-mean naturalistic comedy. It's set in 1997 and the blue-checked couch, Country Road dress, box of Moet, artichokes and hand-made wind chimes (design by Romanie Harper) are so recognisable that many of the audience will be pricing it in their heads and don't need the references to know it's in North Fitzroy. Goodness, it's so silly-us-in-the-90s-with-our-lovely-houses-reading-that-Tim-Winton-book-about-the-disabled-boy that it could be in that bigger theatre down the road.

But it's not that kind of play.

The family are mum, Linda Cropper; dad, Greg Stone; pregnant daughter, Emily Goddard; coke-head investor son, Andre De Vanny; and daughter's girlfriend from Coburg who is about to lose her job at the wharfs, Chanella Marci. The constant sound (James Paul sound design) of building new apartments next door threatens to ruin family Christmas, but there are secrets that are more dangerous.

It's really not this kind of play.

One secret is that the family money is running out, because no one is buying books or seeing puppet shows any more, and that the shed has been leased to a family of people from the suburbs; doubled by three of the cast. This fag-smoking mum wears a glitter reindeer t-shirt from K-Mart and this dad bonds with wharfy girlfriend because they are the only people who get that the blissful "I can hear the cockies at Merri Creek" silence from the building work stopping next door means that people have lost their jobs.

Bogans V what-Yuppies-grew-into. Australian cities and class. Did people living in huge-houses-near-good-schools know what was happening at the Melbourne wharfs in the late 90s and early 2000s?

When the classes clash, the so-familiar comedy twists into an Aussie sitcom complete with laugh track, talking to the audience and characters that are easy to laugh at because they are not us. And "they" don't go to the theatre, so they won't see it. It's easier to laugh than admit to fear.

And it's not that play either.

It's a what-if terrified imagining that the working class revolution happened. Or a dystopic time-shifting fantasy. Or a blood-soaked urban gothic horror dream. Or a jolt into now with a consensual live-art exhibition and cereal-milk pannacotta Masterchef jokes.

Last week, I was unsure about another play by a young writer on a mainstage because it tried to be too many things at one. This is similar, but is more successful because it changes tones tightly and every genre within the genre would be great by itself. Director Janice Muller ensures that the absurdly outrageous shifts in tone and story are surprising but feel so right in the theatre. The walls can come down in the theatre; we never have to imagine that we are really there. And Goddard remains the same character who was asleep on the couch at the beginning, ensuring there's always someone to consistently care about.

Australian Realness is far more than a safe poke at those who go to the theatre and make fun of bogans. It's a far sharper poke and no one knows the safe word to make it stop.

* Possibly Declan Greene, who has since worked with Zoey as a director and as dramaturg on Australian Realness. UPDATE: Yep, it was Dec.

Review: Golden Shield

Golden Shield
Melbourne Theatre Company
16 August 2019
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
to 14 September

"Golden Shield" photo by Jeff Busby.

15 August 2019

Review: Sunday in the Park with George

Sunday in the Park With George
Watch This
10 August 2019
Whitehourse Centre
to 10 August 2019
Geelong: 15–17 August
Melbourne: 21–24 August

Nick Simpson-Deeks, Vidya Makin. "Sunday in the Psrk with George".. Photo by Jodi Hutchinson

"White. A blank page or canvas."

The cliche of an artist opening a work of art by contemplating a space of nothing should feel as condescending as it is – but it doesn't. Bloody Sondheim; even his most indulgent work feels real.

Sunday in the Park with George is Stephen Sondheim's 1985 personal plea for theatre-goers to understand the process and importance of art. It's the sixth show Melbourne-based independent Sondheim-only company Watch This have brought us and one that looks at the work with their own perspective.

The original production starred Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, with the book by James Lapine. It won Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is especially well known because it was filmed and released on home video (it's easy to find in YouTube; it's awesome). It was the show that Sondheim was never going to make because he declared he was quitting theatre following the heartbreak-cum-disaster of his Merrily We Roll Along, which closed after 16 Broadway performances in 1981. (If you haven't seen the documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, it's on Netflix; it's also awesome.)

Sunday is an imagination of artist George Seurat in the two years he was painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884) in Paris, and his great grandchild George's reimagining of the work 100 years later with the super-cool computerised art of the 1980s.

It's a work that can feel difficult to sink into. In act one, the stories and characters have limited connections; there are discussions about pointillism, colour and art theory; and the protagonist is difficult to like as he connects more with a dog in the park than with his mother or his pregnant lover and model, Dot.

But even the best-worst name pun ever – his painting is a series of dots – is overcome as the act ends with an ensemble number that's as affecting as anything Sondheim has written. It brings all the disparate elements together musically and dramatically with a demonstration of "order, design, tension, composition, balance, light and harmony" that can't explain why it pokes emotions that you may not have known were there.

With a orchestra of four – four! –, Ned Wright-Smith's musical direction and Dominic Woodhead's orchestration focus on the transcending dissonance to harmony and supporting the singers to find the emotion inherent in every note.

Watch This don't have the resources to create the sort of design that productions of Sunday are known for, but Sarah Tulloch's design (with Rob Sowinski's lighting) looks at sections of the painting as it develops and has lots of fun with the 1980's version. And Rhiannon Irving's costumes let the characters feel like they really did come off the painting as the fabric is also coloured with dots.

Directors Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares ensure that character leads everything on the stage and that the performers let the characters feel personal. This production isn't a deconstruction of a man able to spend his days making art that he thinks will change the world. It's not about the finished piece. It's about what he leaves out of the canvas (score/book/review), what he changes, and what he distorts to fit his idea of perfection.

Representation is far more than being peeved because your image is out of proportion.

The gaze of an artist rarely reflects reality.

As George's model, Dot is as much inspiration to him as she is irrelevant. He might love her but is far more passionate about her standing still or letting him finish that darn hat. Vidya Makan shows how easy it was for George to choose her, but she is confident enough to know that she can't get lost in her love for George. She doesn't resort to spite and knows that she's making the best choices for her, even if they hurt.

However, a production of this musical rests with George and George, who are played by the same person. The Georges aren't easy men to like unless you love them. Nick Simpson-Deeks's George is personal. He holds George 1's emotions so close that George barely knows they are there and George 2 is tightly wound and determined but open to being so much more. As he holds back the emotions, his performance shines as he lets the music and song show everything that George 1 would never say and what George 2 learns to express.

We sing what we can't say; that's how great musicals work. When George and Dot sing, we see who they really are; we see the flecks of light and dark. And parasols.

Watch This don't make us stand in the middle of the gallery and look at the work of a "genuis". This Sunday in the Park with George moves us to the corners and behind the crowds where the view isn't as clear and perfect. It's a production for us and for now.

They open tonight in Geelong and this weekend might be your only chance to see it because their Melbourne season is all but sold out because Sondheim fans know not to miss it.

09 August 2019

Review: My Dearworthy Darling

My Dearworthy Darling
Malthouse and The Rabble
7 August 2019
Beckett Theatre
to 18 August

Jennifer Vuletic. "Me Dearworthy Darling". Photo by David Paterson

I didn't realise how often I don't see reflections of myself on our stages, until I did.

Near the opening of The Rabble's My Dearworthy Darling, Jennifer Vuletic lies on a rock/couch/bed  talking about not being looked at with disgust. Middle aged? Of a certain age? "Never ask a lady her age" bullshit. Women who no longer have the physical benefits of oestrogen and the appeal of fertility can disappear from our stories as we're not virgins, 30-somethings or crones. Not in this story.

Trying to find meaning in a production by The Rabble can work against experiencing their work. On a very superficial level, this is a story about domestic and family gaslighting overcome by the voice and choir of a mystic from the middle ages; which doesn't come near to what's really going on.

The Rabble's theatre can feel confusing and unclear, but their work is visceral and meaning seeps into you without you knowing. It could be in how the lighting changes the colour of the air or how hearing the sound though a bank of speakers forces you to change how you listen to the people on stage. It might be the words or the performances. Or the carpeted floor and the vacuum, silver draped ceiling and LED sign. Or the choir of hooded monks.

But it is likely that your understanding is something that no one else felt.

The text by Alison Croggon began with the 14th century writings of Margery Kemp. Croggon's prolific writing includes criticism, journalism, poetry, libretti, plays and fiction (young adult, fantasy and historical). This text feels like it incorporates them all – there's even a critic joke – but feels more personal than other works of hers that I've read.

The personal is also in the performances from Vuletic, Natalie Gamsu (her sister) and Ben Grant (her partner). In a world that looks and feels so unlike the domestic, they find a naturalism that almost tips the text's poetry and they create characters so recognisable that it's easy to know, understand or judge them.

Natalie Gamsu. "My Dearworthy Darling". Photo by David Paterson

As it was always written to be a collaboration with directors-designers-Rabble-founders Emma Valente and Kate Davis, it's not an option to look at the text away from the production and performance. Davis and Valente develop their theatre from a rehearsal room where no one's voice is excluded and even though only a fraction of the development ends up on the stage, the contributions of all are so blurred that it seems like one voice.

My Dearworthy Darling surprises with its shifts from the familiar to the unknown and from the mundane to the spiritual. Its symbolism is as obvious as it is obscure but its many contradictions feel surprising natural. It's not easy theatre and is as much about theatre as it is about the deeply personal and hidden. But it left me feeling like it was theatre for me.