Tuesday, June 06, 2006


I've long been harshly critical of the use of the word "surreal" in reviews, especially theatre reviews. Admittedly, I do have a vague anxiety which suggests that I may have used the term myself once or twice, but rest assured that this is only because I am lazy and/or sometimes have too much on my plate (I write on plates - nothing like the lustre of cool porcelain to fire the creative spirit). But too many reviewers fall back on "surreal" when they really mean something else. Sometimes, when they drop the S-Bomb, what they really mean is:
WEIRD: Surreal doesn't mean weird. A grownup dressed as a bunny rabbit playing with an assault rifle isn't necessarily surreal. It's weird. It may, perhaps, be more than that, but on its own it ain't surreal.
UNCANNY: If something smacks of the supernatural but isn't squarely in that camp, still maintaining an ambiguity of origin or a familiarity despite its strangeness, then it's uncanny, not surreal. A ghostly bunny telling our protagonist her future is not surreal. It may be uncanny. Depending on what the bunny says.
UNREAL: If something is fantastic, and blatantly not real, it is definitely not surreal. It is in fact the opposite of surreal.
REAL: If something is realistic, it is not surrealistic. I shouldn't need to explain this.
FUNNY: Don't even start me.
IMITATIVE OF CANONICAL SURREALIST ART: Dripping clocks etc don't make something surreal. Ohhh no.
UNINTELLIGIBLE: Just because you don't understand it, doesn't mean that you can slap it in the surreal basket (what would such a basket look like, I wonder).
POSTMODERN: Definitely not surreal, but I wouldn't advise using this term either, unless you really know what you mean by it and are fairly confident that your reader knows as well.
There are plenty of other adjectives which better describe a thing than 'surreal'. Look them up. It's been very very rare that I've seen a performance I would describe as surreal. In fact, I can't even think of one from the past few years. But the show I saw on Saturday night is the closest I can think of.
LALLY KATZ AND THE TERRIBLE MYSTERIES OF THE VOLCANO is an amazing piece of theatre, though it takes a while to really draw you into its net. It's written by, well, Lally Katz, and follows a male detective (also named Lally Katz) as he attempts to unravel a particularly dense and layered plot centring on a volcano, a childhood friend and the relationship between the two. Beyond that, it gets pretty hard to describe, but making sense of things is part of the fun.
Lally is accompanied by a lion named Lion as he returns to his childhood town of Canberra, an island under the dominating grip of the living volcano at its centre. This imagined "Canberra" is the home to all kinds of odd folks, including a Spanish club owner obsessed with the missing girl, a prostitute with burnt-out eyes, woodland animals, a young man who is constantly rooting but can't bring things to a natural climax, and a plenty more. As Lally becomes personally implicated in the enigmatic crime, he disappears into the volcano itself, and Lion must enlist some assistance to save his good buddy.
The play alternates between three timeframes: Lally's childhood, his return to the island, and Lion's rescue attempts. The intermingling of the three is expertly achieved, and Chris Kohn's direction is outstanding, bringing out an arresting array of theatrical techniques (including, in the second half, some which I suspect he picked up during his time in New York), and the pace never flags. But most importantly, despite the massive amounts of non-realistic imagery and narrative drama which are delivered at a bewildering rate, everything seems to follow a kind of internal logic. And it's this which causes me to feel that the piece can deservedly be called surreal. It's not unreal, but offers a reality which seems to exist beyond our normal levels of perception or linear thinking, and seems to tear at the fabric of reality to suggest a more profound but no less real something beyond.
In a way, it's one of the most 'true' shows I've seen in a long time. There's a lot of autobiographical stuff in there, but it's not delivered in a conventionally autobiographical manner. It produces 'Lally Katz' but is also reflective of the lack of distinction between author and text. I could waffle on at this theoretical level for a while, but I'd rather just encourage you to see it and we can discuss it from there. Class dismissed.


richardwatts said...

When Lally hits, as she did with Black Swan and Eisteddfod, she hits with the impact of Ali. You've sold me on the new show. I'm there.

Djali said...

Sounds wonderful, does it really feature woodland creatures? Oh, I am so there too.