Friday, February 06, 2009


This is a sad story. It’s not a happy or funny story (sad stories can be funny, too). But it’s true which might count for something, though it rarely does around here.

Mrs B. used to be a model, a pretty successful one I think, but when I knew her she was maybe in her 50s or late 40s. I was 17 or 18 and knew her through her daughter, whom I went out with for a long time. I really liked both of them. They were very fierce and argumentative and astute.

Mrs B. had three dogs, I think. I only really remember two – a huge black shaggy thing with a kind face and a smaller mutt whose back legs had been twisted and ruined at some point, and who dragged herself around happily using her front paws. She would follow the other dogs as they ran through the dark house, her useless back legs always keeping her well behind, but not seeming to dampen her enthusiasm.

Mrs B. lived in a long, narrow terrace in Elsternwick. The front two rooms were bedrooms but she slept on a couch in the big lounge room at the house’s rear. I remember that room pretty well. There was a big 4- or 5-foot fishtank filled with tropical fish. There were lots of couches and a messy adjoining kitchen where Mrs B. would sometimes have a huge vat of soup on the boil for days at a time, flavours filling the house. Mrs B. was an artist, I should mention, and her home reflected that. She was also an émigré from Europe somewhere, maybe Germany, and had maybe even fled World War II. I think she had.

In that big, low, shadowy back room my girlfriend and I once spent a Christmas Eve with Mrs B and some of her friends. One was a red-faced old contrarian whose first words as I entered the room were “you’re a commie pinko!” This was confusing but he then drunkenly fell backwards off his chair into a Christmas tree’s embrace and was unable to extricate himself for a good ten minutes.

Mrs B. had a strange collection of friends like that, young and old, sometimes utterly at odds with her personality and lifestyle. She might have been the only person I’ve ever met who really fit the label Bohemian, which doesn’t have much currency any more.

Once there was a fire in my girlfriend’s bedroom after a blanket was kicked onto a bar heater. No real damage was done, but Mrs B. thought it was pretty funny.

There was another fire, later. Mrs B. woke on her couch in the back room to find herself surrounded by flames licking up the walls and curling around the curtains. Smoke was everywhere and she, half-asleep, managed to fight her way down the long corridor to the front door, which was locked. She threw herself through the front bedroom window and ran, soot-stained and half-dressed, to a neighbour’s house. It took a while for anyone to respond to her screaming.

I walked through the charred house the next day. The glass of the fishtank had evaporated, as if it had never existed. Parts of walls would fall off as I passed.

I saw the photo albums of Mrs B’s friends past and present. The albums survived but each image had become streaked and warped from the heat so that faces dripped down the page like Francis Bacon images. Nobody’s image survived the fire.

And the dogs. The two big dogs managed to leap the front window sill and emerge from the heat, but the little chubby cripple was trapped inside by the locked door and her ragged legs. The other dogs howled for her escape but she never made it.

Anyway, that’s all there is to that story. Like I said, it’s not a happy or funny story.

I saw Malthouse Theatre’s Woyzeck the other night. It’s neither happy nor funny. Tim Rodgers is compelling to watch and Bojana Novakovic comes closest to producing real emotion in the piece. Socratis Otto really underwhelmed me – I’ve never seen him before and he didn’t really make much of an impression (unlike Rodgers, who had a showman’s panache and a wild, intuitive acting style). The music, too, is some of the best I’ve seen in a theatrical context. Novakovic’s “Don’t Look At Me” number was the high point of the thing.

I think the show itself doesn’t work on certain affective levels. I didn’t care at all for the journey of Woyzeck and thought that the production’s spectacular elements worked against its central character’s struggles rather than in concert with them. But I don’t mind all of this too much. It’s director Michael Kantor perhaps doing best what he tries to do – this isn’t a show for students of classical realism but is an interpretation which will be most appealing to those who are familiar with the play, its history and its position within a canon. It doesn’t make the piece relevant to our times, or extract an essential core which makes the play “timeless”. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have a core at all. Kantor’s aesthetic seems to me centrifugal rather than centripetal (which is how I would characterise Bell Shakespeare, for instance). Kantor pushes outwards from a work’s centre, rather than spiralling in. This creates an energy that is about constant release, no arrival, only escape.

Some theatregoers want to find a home, others to leave it.


Anonymous said...

Does anyone else in the world post reviews that bring tears to my eyes. No.

Martin White said...

What an amazing response, BD. You've certainly caused me to reconsider Kantor's work and I think you're absolutely right. I've never thought about it that way before.
The thing is though, his work no longer even suggests a centre, as it used to. It used to be conspicuously absent and cause the audience to fill the blanks which is ultimately extraordinarily satisfying. But 'Vamp' and now this just felt like a collection of under-realised and incoherent elements, all of which seem perfect on paper but none of which go any distance to illuminating anything.

Anonymous said...

I should have taken a rainzeck.