Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sydney Festival Highs and Lows

Every fool and their woe begotten dog* knows that I was recently away for the better part of a week (better because it included a weekend) north of the border in Sydney. I’m contractually obligated not to reveal the motivations behind this uncharacteristic exit of the dank, aluminium clad subterranean bunker I dub home, surrounded by long-life tubs of protein powder and UHT milk, a short-wave radio, books by esteemed conspiracy theorists cruelly labelled “crackpots” and my one true friend on this scorched earth, the reinforced baseball bat I affectionately call “Blind Justice”.

I can, however, tell you that my exploits will feature in my government-commissioned memoirs (forthcoming). Look for them in the chapters entitled:

I am Alan, Your Busdriver
Pesto Egg Event
Opera House
The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (in Manly)
Australia Day of the Dead
Icy Goats Cheese Event
Opera House 2: The Pointing

In short, my time in Sydney is best expressed through dance, but since the internet cannot dance like a carefree child in the moonlight I am forced to turn to other ways of expressing myself. Basically, here’s how the shit went down:

I cannot write much more now under publishers orders but whilst “up north” I did catch a few shows in and around and not really of the local festival, and have been granted permission to mention them here (under the ancient law of “lex talionis” which roughly translates as “grody waltz funk”).


It takes a special kind of talent to make a show as dumb as Black Watch. To take such a rich subject and leech it of any dramatic interest, urgency or sophistication – you’d have to say it’s a gift. I think you could make a better show just by accident.

But Black Watch was the talk of the Sydney Festival, and almost everyone I met raved about it. I have to ascribe a lot of that buzz to the subject – it looks at the 300 year history of the famous Scottish Regiment which gives the play its title and which has fought in countless wars the world over. Most of it tracks a bunch of Black Watch soldiers in Iraq, with the occasional flashback to earlier times and a hideously clunky framing device involving a journalist interviewing the same soldiers in a pub in the present day.

To be honest, until I saw Black Watch I never realised how much fun war could be. As someone who loves a good song and dance, I’d long written off military conflict as a terrifying ordeal of organised chaos, never knowing when the bullet with your name on it would hit, seeing your mates cut down around you and trying not to go crazy questioning the point of it all. As it turns out, war is closer to a high school musical, and Black Watch’s many badly choreographed numbers and lilting ballads sung by men in uniform finally made that clear to me.

Richard Cooke put it best in a review in Sydney’s Time Out – he points out that the show’s basic premise of “support the troops, not the invasion” is a cop-out. It’s also the entire premise of Black Watch, which attempts to show soldiers as innocent victims while the high-ups and the whole process of modern warfare is the culprit.

“It’s…a view that can only function without perspective,” writes Cooke, “namely, the perspective created by Iraqi suffering. So it’s simply excluded: the Black Watch don’t fire a shot (that’s left for the Americans) and the one Iraqi ‘character’ has no name… and no actor to portray him. Blasted alongside Black Watch soldiers, whose shredded bodies descend ethereally from wires, this lone civilian is nowhere to be seen.”

Don’t get me started on that climactic scene in which the soldiers killed by a car-bomb fall from the sky – it turns horror into a lush spectacle accompanied by some Enya-type music, and so completely distances itself from any sense of such an event’s reality that it may as well have been performed by giant animal-costumed characters on ice-skates.

And there’s a whole list of other things I could complain about: the non-existent characterisation (I only remember one character and that was because he was bald), the lame acting (any scene’s dominant character could be better described as “the one standing up”), the patronising infantilisation of its subjects (showing soldiers as boy-men not responsible for their actions) and the script which substitutes swearing for actual content – realistic, sure, but if you pulled out all of the potty mouth the script would probably only be a few pages long.

So why all the acclaim? National Theatre of Scotland is a new company, and good on it for doing so well internationally with this and a dozen other shows. But I couldn’t help feeling that the applause (and the standing ovations) were pre-ordained. You did a show about the Iraq war which weakly suggests that it might not be super-ace, and performed it to people who mostly thought the same thing. You didn’t scare them too much, and you had some toe-tapping numbers and some stirring bagpipes marches.

I saw an equally stirring bagpipe tattoo down on Manly beach a few days later, as a kilted bunch accompanied a few squads of lifesavers doing a performance for the assembled crowd. Felt about as stirred then, too.


Since returning from the beastly northern climes I have spent eight consecutive hours standing in front of a convenience store. The reasons for this will become clear in time, I hope, or else all is lost and I fear for our children’s future. I can say this, however: there are many undiscovered artists in our midst whose sole creative outlet comes in Slurpee form. I say this not lightly.

I worked in a convenience store for several years, on and off, a long time ago. It was a deeply edifying experience and ranks as one of the most educational things I believe a person can do. This time, too, will feature in my memoirs in the chapters:

Umbilical Cord Wrapped in Blue Tissue
A Fireman’s Axe to my Neck
Old Man Ruffles
Stinky Five Dollar Note
Slurpee Machine Event

Which brings me (you) to Urban Theatre Project’s The Last Highway. This show was my highlight of the Sydney Festival. Set in a quiet petrol station deep in Sydney’s West, it saw audiences travelling out to Bankstown where buses took them further into suburbia, passing the petrol stop which inspired the piece before finally disembarking in a massive warehouse space with a stage set up to resemble the same lonely highway-side location. Bowsers, a late-night kebab stand, parked cars and the neon-drenched shop itself.

“Boring as batshit,” as I heard one punter describe it afterwards. True. He’d probably never worked at a place like that. I found it profoundly honest and perfect in its stillness, its unhurried quality. The characters are clerks, taxi drivers, a trio of sex workers and the kebab man. They’re all painted in exquisite, minute detail, often wordless but never less than riveting. Their dramas are too real, all the moreso for our lack of access to their interior lives and backstories. There’s no explication here: the prostitute maintaining a vigil for someone dead sets up fairy-lights and plays a CD in rememberance, but we never know the object of her mourning. The attendant who begins taunting another sex worker in a lurid dance later becomes the closest the work has to a hero, though he’s anything but. And the villain of the piece, a rapist, is drawn in such a contradictory way that he can’t simply be written off.

I’m no fan of realism. It’s a stifling convention of genre that rarely impresses me, but the hyper-realism of The Last Highway had me remembering why this is so. Realism is usually about highly constrained theatrical formalism, prosaic dialogue and simplified performance concealing rigorously non-naturalistic dramatic structures. Realism isn’t really real, mostly. Reality is simply too odd, and too boring. Go figure.

Then again, boredom is the response we have when we can’t connect to the reality of something. If the real is boring, it’s because we’d prefer something with a little more fizz, a heightened version of our own experiences dressed up as something we can call our lives.

I’m a bit bored with this review, really. It’s nowhere near The Last Highway.


There is a certain school of thought which suggests that circus is not cool, but I was too cool for that school, my school was not cool, my cool in largely unschooled and all of this is a nicely obtuse way of saying that I did not go to circus school (NICA).

I did go to a circus once, though, and saw an elephant crap and some pretty ladies who were proudly bendable and some little dogs on equally little platforms: all of this taught me that animals should not be in circuses (and the bending).

I guess James Thiérrée’s stuff is a bit like circus because it involves clowning and swinging on things and little bits of magic that create a sense of wonder in the child that dwells within us all (I’m not advocating eating children, mind) but I’m hesitant to call it circus because it’s about as far from sad-lived carnie folk in three-day-old greasepaint as it is from turgid Cirque de Soleil commercialism.

Thiérrée is Charlie Chaplin’s grandkid and if you’re really familiar with Chaplin’s better stuff you might be well equipped to make sense of his Sydney Fest show. It drips with the stuff Chaplin’s on-screen world was made of: the sense of a world alive and bewildering to its occupants, things as possessed of life as people; characters utterly childlike in the face of reality’s complete unpredictability; and the ability of those characters to do impossible things once fully immersed in that world.

There’s some kind of story to Au Revoir… but I was a bit baffled. I’m pleading innocent since one of the castmembers was injured before my viewing and they had to quickly rewrite the thing without her character, but it seemed to involve some dude trying and his daughter making their way through a strange land of giant fish and moving treetrunks and mechanical seesaws and raining shuttlecocks and of course, all I could think was “woah, I shouldn’t have eaten that cheese before bed.” Maybe if the absent castmember had been there, it would have been a little more coherent.

But I don’t really think so. Thiérrée’s show does make sense in a nonsensical way. It’s the kind of sense that appeals purely to the body and to the irrational and to the things that bubble away in the subconscious, not in a studied or symbolic way but in the way that a guy flying through the air on meathooks as he ascends a three-story high gnarl of grey rope-matter to reunite with his long-lost feral child makes sense to something inside anyone.

It could have been the cheese. But this is one of the most visually beautiful shows in, like, forevz, shuttlecocks and all.

* I am more of a cat person.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

er... either I'm getting old or that last point size was illegible. Where did I put that magnifying glass?