For some reason I had trouble hustling up a willing companion to accompany me to Robert Wilson’s A La Galaga. Why? The question really beat the urine out of me. I mean, here we have the chance to see a work by one of the world’s leading directors, arguably the world’s premier director of contemporary opera. The guy made Einstein on the Beach, which has surely earned its place in the pantheon of “on the” artworks (Kafka on the Shore, Fiddler on the Roof, Blame it on the Boogie). Sure, come the naysayers, it’s three hours long with no interval.
But look at the title! It’s Wilson doing Galaga! How can this be wrong? If I heard that they were touring Peter Brooks’ After Super Mario or Robert Lepage’s Eight Airs in the Key of Pong or, hell, even Barrie Kosky’s overrated The Insatiable Man of Pac, I’d be jumping onto the back of the couch, sending my dinner ($3 microwavable nachos from 7-11) arcing across the room to Pollock the wall, yelling at the top of my lungs something like “get me Ticketmaster on the dog-and-bone ANON!” before collapsing in a giddy heap and coming to in a congealing puddle of room-temperature salsa and not-quite-cheese as the realisation struck me Bruce-Lee-double-punch-style: I have no one to make such calls for me, and perhaps there’s a reason for that.
But it’s Galaga!
As a kid, I’ll admit, I hardly acted honourably during the whole Galaga/Space Invaders civil war which fractured the globe during the early 80s; I was the double agent, the lad who’d spit coins at any flashy number that came my way. I’d heard the propaganda: that the big G was just a cheap rip-off; that Space Invaders was the only ‘pure’ way, and that anything else would only lead to a life of sordid squalor and Russell Street arcade hanging out in-ing. But I didn’t care: give me bleeps and squiggles, blinking lights and ever-rapidly descending aliens, hope and loss for 20 cents a pop – I’d gladly get it wherever I could.
Three hours of Galaga? Nothing. Even as a twenty year old, after a decade hiatus, when I found a vintage Galaga machine at the old International Bar (now Ding Dong) in the city, I rediscovered my lack of ability but abundance of optimism in the game, frantically mashing those random buttons in the belief that I could stave off global annihilation for far less than the cost of a beer. And I found this through the wealth of friends and strangers who were eager to challenge me at that very same task.
Three hours of Galaga? That was just a warm up for us.
So where were these gallant button-jockeys now? Where were those looking to see their teen computer game addictions played out on Melbourne’s largest stage, by a director at the top of his game?
They were reading the program more closely, it seems. As it turns out, Wilson’s epic is titled I La Galigo, and it’s his rendition of an Indonesian creation myth that rivals The Odyssey in length and impact.
I found a friend, finally; D_____ was a frequent visitor to Indonesia in his youth, and knew enough of the language and culture to educate me well before and after the show.
Which was, itself, like a lot (if not all) of the festival as I’ve seen it so far. The best word I can find to sum it up is: interesting. Yeah, hardly a word that will have you cussing yourself for not booking tickets earlier, but that’s how it’s been. There’s been nothing that I’d rave to my friends about, and insist that they MUST see, but there’s been nothing that I’ve been tempted to walk out of, either. It’s all been rather intriguing, quite original, somewhat different, nicely produced and adequately attended.
Wilson’s saga is three hours, yeah. And it could be cut, I suppose. The initial sequence of performers walking slowly across the stage bearing traditional Indonesian artefacts as the onstage band plays distantly, not too dramatically, wasn’t an instant turn-off but felt unnecessary. Once the actual story itself kicked in, at least half an hour on, it proved fairly compelling, in the way that most creation myths are. There was war, prophecy, divine intervention, exploration, wonder, sex. The usual. And Wilson did a good job making the thing pretty pretty, though not super-pretty (I know his thing is making the backdrop lighting impressive, but he needs to expand the palette).
And the venue. We were obliquely notified that we were free to enter and leave the auditorium throughout the performance, in keeping with the fashion of Indonesian theatre. And god knows, at three hours, throughout an epic creation myth mostly conveyed without words, this would seem appropriate.
But we were at the Arts Centre, for a Melbourne International Arts Festival show, so the young couple immediately to my right were subjected to about 80 Sharp And Disapproving Glances by the older couple in front of me, as they giggled and talked during the first ten minutes (they walked out after that). Others occasionally spoke in hushed tones, but there was the generally stultifying air of a High Art performance throughout.
Which is fine, in context. But this show didn’t deserve such a context.
It deserved a showing in an open-air amphitheatre, with a large crowd coming and going, talking, commenting on and drawing thoughts from the goings-on onstage. It wasn’t a show for breathlessly absorbing: it was a show for engaging with, in the full sense of the word, for being a part of, in the way that audiences are so rarely these days. It should have been the Galaga experience, in which every paying audience member felt a vital and immediate connection with the story being told and the many people who are telling it.
It was, however, interesting.
NB: If anyone wants to produce a show with all the interactive energy of an old-school video game, I’m right behind you. I imagine a Bosch-style mise-en-scene with dozens of actors onstage, each tethered by marionette strings which are controlled by an individual audience member. The audience, then, creates the performance we see, and its up to our creativity in conjunction with the performance abilities of the cast to make something wonderful. Perhaps impractical, though.