Friday, January 20, 2006

Ode to a Grecian...

In the interests of full disclosure and transparency, I might as well come out and say it: I'm not a big fan of Greek tragedy. Now, those of you who've read along for a while might be pursing the corners of your mouth and "pfft"-ing and pulling the same face you wore when Howard denied any underlying racism in Australia, thinking "Of course he doesn't go for Greek tragedy! He's already complained about Shakespeare, Brecht, Williamson and plenty of other stuff whichmakes up the cornerstones of theatre education in this country! NO SURPRISES HERE thank you".

Well, sure. But there's a difference. See, and gather round now children, there you go, make room for your brother, there's plenty of room for all...see, here's the difference: if I want to know what happens in Troilus & Cressida but can't be bothered reading it, I can always find a shoddy 80s BBC version featuring ugly men with wispy beards and have a good laugh while I'm watching it. Same goes for most of the modernist theatrical masterpieces. But there's no way I'm watching a film version of no greek drama. I'm stuck either a) reading the damn thing (which isn't so bad) or b) watching a really boring rendition by a bunch of graduation VCE students.

I understand the contribution this stuff has made to contemporary theatre. This includes The Chorus, wherein a gang of hangers-on pretty much tell you the plot (like sitting in the tea room at work the night after a particularly good episode of The Bill); excessive overuse of masks, which always brings up vague Eyes Wide Shut paranoia in me; and the cathartic function of drama, also seen in forms such as the daytime soap and Jerry Springer.

But a lot of the time, I'm thinking "don't fart on me, sonny, and call it French perfume". No amount of white pancake and hollering can really make me that intrigued by the machinations of Theban rulers. Just give it to me straight, or find something more relevant to my situation and the situation of my aching bumcheeks, usually screaming at me for putting them in a moulded plastic assembly-hall chair for two hours plus.

This week I visited the opening of Unholy Site, an interpretation of Sophocles' Antigone by Jacklyn Bassanelli. And I'm pleased to say that nary a mask nor chorus was in sight, and the cathartic element of the play wasn't its focus (not for me, at least). And I really enjoyed it, though opinions differed as to why.

The wonderfully-initialed JB gave a solo performance which took the basic tale and shook things up a bit (or a lot). She tells the thing from Antigone's POV, and plays her as an angry, violently rebellious princess. One punter later called her "Paris Hilton with more neuroses", but I didn't see it that way. Either way, it was a compelling and well-considered interpretation of a character fairly done to death these days.

The big thing what got me, though, is the method of presentation. On opening night at The Crofts Institute, the entire performance was delivered on a video screen with camera attached and sound pumped through an amp. In one long take, with lighting and sound operated via a remote by the actor herself onscreen, we saw the performance play out in real time but strangely absent. Bassanelli might not have even been in the building, though I later found out that she was. One reviewer noted that the effect of the TV screen showing meant that Antigone became curiously entombed alive in the black box, which is entirely thematically appropriate. For my part, I was wondering all sorts of other things, about the "live"-ness of prerecorded performance, and about the effect of a theatre audience watching a TV screen (totally different to a projected film/video) and the alternating or even concurrent sense of presence and absence, passivity and interactivity this creates. There was also the sense of the prerecording as a suicide note, or a voice from beyond the grave.

But I was in a minority here, and others couldn't help but want some more life to the show. I'll state it bluntly, I really liked the daring of playing things the way they were played, but I can understand the reservations others had about it. And after opening night, a joint decision from the creators saw the live element reintroduced, and the show now offers the same story played live while the camera simultaneously records it and plays it on the television. I'll try to go back and see how this looks some time next week.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Diamond Dust Blues

John Michael Howson, a person who wrote Dusty

I read recently that the first draft of Dusty didn't get the big toothy grin and double-thumbs jerking skywards from the late singer's friends. The exact response, according to one of the writers (professional gossip hound and campy socialite John Michael Howson) was something along the lines of "you haven't captured her at all!".

I would love to read that draft. I can't imagine how it could have gone wrong. Not when the final version included an exchange so molar-impactingly awful that it will probably have quite a few dentists throwing their little mouth mirror things across the room in disgust and despair in the coming weeks.

Allow me to recount the scene ('scene' is industry talk for 'bit' - I sometimes forget that not all readers are in The Biz). Dusty Springfield is about to go on tour to Australia. She complains to her gay hairdresser friend (is there any other kind?) that she's getting a bit too chubby to tour. And he replies that it's ok, THEY ALREADY HAVE ONE SLIM DUSTY IN AUSTRALIA.

Here's me after hearing that line:

Anyway, it's taken me a week to write on the show, but not for any interesting reason. I enjoyed it quite a lot, though there are huge gaps and oversights and misjudged plot maneuvers. It's a musical, however, so I'm willing to give it some slack since the musical isn't my preferred genre and I'm not as qualified to judge their worth or lack thereof. For my money, some toe-tappin' tunes and a bag of spirit fingers are enough. Dusty already came with the music in the bag, and it wasn't long in before a saw a scene in which about twenty people were all doing slow spirit fingers around the show's star, so I felt I'll gotten what I asked for.

Tamsin Carroll might well win a whole heap of awards for her role as Dusty; especially when you consider that she's only 26. It's an amazing performance for someone so young, and though she doesn't try to replicate the singer's vocal style exactly, she can sure belt out a number. In spoken sections, she does an incredibly unnerving accent which I've since been told is pretty faithful to Springfield, but nonetheless had me worried that she'd been listening to water-damaged tapes of the singer or something.

The opening night after party was an epicentre of Melbourne artistic elite, if you interpret the word 'artistic' to mean 'recognisable' and the word 'elite' to mean 'nobodies'. Lots of Aussie Idols, ex-TV celebrities, music industry old guard and the like. I won't name names because I don't do that sort of thing (remember them, I mean). But I was most impressed to see even JM Howson making an appearance and eagerly answering questions from admiring young things.

The food was okay: leek and gorgonzola arancini things; basil, cheese and tomato 'panini' (I'd call 'em 'toasties') and party pies topped with some kind of salsa (they called them 'beef and burgundy' but they sure as hell looked 'four and twenty' to me).

But I didn't stay long. My significant other/girlfriend/main squeeze/whatever the terminology is these days and I hoofed it off before the speeches, because there was only so much backslapping and belly-rubbing and metaphorical high-fiving we could handle. And there was also that other thing.

You know on those dark cold winter nights when you realise you've been idling in the car alone out the front of the house for about two hours, playing Hotel California over and over and remembering how it thrilled you in your youth before the responsibilities of life shoved all your dreams to one side, responsibilities which are now lying in bed inside that heavily mortgaged house wondering where you are and why you always seem so distant nowadays and have taken to strumming that old guitar in the shed for entire weekends, not uttering a word or making eye contact, and how you wish you could go back and do things differently because now you've dug yourself into a hole you can't get out of? And how you could have been a contender, a real musician, and how they should have been writing musicals about YOU goddammit! You know that feeling?

No, me neither. But I think a lot of the people at that party might.

I'm not making accusations. Supposition and vague aspertion-casting are more my forte.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Show Off

Anyone who knows me (and who really knows anyone, when you get down to it?) will be aware of my interest in audiences; specifically in audience behaviour. To me, the twentieth century was a long period of shutting up, closing down and reining in the various things audiences got up to during a show. If you look into your crystal ball (and set it in reverse) you'd see that a few hundred years ago, house lights were usually kept on during a show, audience members yelled to each other across the room and if you didn't like a show, you got on stage and told the actors what they were doing wrong. Or, if you were up in the gallery (the 'toothpick and crutches crowd' - I have no idea what this means but I love the phrase) you'd assert your displeasure more pungently: the vegetable missile as a tool of criticism. This is when throwing tomatoes was an actuality, not just a Muppet-show caper, and along side the toms you might find spuds, carrots, eggs, pumpkins (ouch), chairs (double ouch) or worse. I've read of one performance which saw a hail of not only the above items, but a sack of flour, and pail of ash and a dead goose.

"Poor show, I say"

I don't know who brings a dead goose to a show, but you can probably tell that attending the theatre was a different story way back then.

Anyway, things are much less interactive these days, but we're not all automatons. One of the ways we can still comment publicly on a show in an mostly acceptable manner is to walk out. The walkout fascinates me, mainly because I never do it (professional courtesy and all that). It seems to me that there are a few kinds of walkout.

The Interval Walkout: a fairly low-impact walkout, the Interval Walkout allows you to avoid the rest of the show without making a spectacle of yourself. The sudden, unexpected freeing up of your time also makes for a refreshingly unexpected evening, though most people tell me this means sitting in a bar or fast-food outlet.

The In-Show Walkout: a far more barbed attack, this let's the rest of the audience (and, often, the performers) know that you're not amused. Unless you do the awkward and embarrassed apologetic tiptoe, in which case people tend to suspect a bathroom mishap.

The Preemptive Walkout: More of a social bonding thing, this is when two or more patrons turn up to a show and after some hesitation decide to ditch the thing and do something else. A wonderful feeling.

The Long-Distance Preemptive Walkout: This is when one decides a show is crap without even seeing it. Favourite tactic of Andrew Bolt, who last year blasted an entire festival without seeing a single show.

The Post-Show Walkout: A very subtle and polite walkout - there's always at least one audience member or group to bolt for the doors as soon as the applause kicks in. This allows others the belief that you've simply got to beat the rush/avoid a parking fine/get home and catch the babysitter in the act.

The Walkin: A very rare and confusing thing, this isn't just the "Oops, got caught in the tram doors" sneak-in five minutes after the show begins. It's the walk in an hour or more into proceedings. A recent show saw someone walking in a few minutes before the show's finale, and the excited patron only caught the encore. Always stumps those who notice the (very) latecomer.

I mention all this because a friend walked out of the MTC's Dumb Show last week, and this left me a mite confused. The stated reason was that she couldn't identify or find any interest in any of the characters. Fair enough. And I've read some scathing reviews of the show since. But I had a great time there: very accomplished and able actors, a fast-paced script and a nice design. Sure, the show was pretty middle-brow and there wasn't much we haven't seen before, but you can't expect much else from the MTC. Or, at least, you shouldn't reasonably expect much else, considering the subscriber base and business goals of the company. Nobody really looks to the MTC for cutting edge, experimental or deeply challenging work, and the closest plays to head in that direction in last year's season (Hitchcock Blonde and Cheech) were either awfully misogynist or too simple to really rattle any cages.

I'm not apologising for the play, and if you don't like it, more power to you. Tell people. Or throw a goose. For my part, I very rarely identify with a theatrical character, and by rarely I might even mean never. I probably identify more closely with dance, or something like that. Not 'character', especially as evoked through dialogue. Got a problem with that?


"I am the Mexican, by the way"