Tribes

Tribes, as produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company, creates an engaging family portrait that – despite falling into the pathways of constructed family dysfunction – constructs a narrative that reaches outside of the domestic unit and into the world of the Deaf community, reflecting the suffocation that sometimes comes with those who ‘try to do their best for you’.

An upper middle class family of Jewish intellectuals, the family unit in Tribes use argument and verbal patter as their main form of communication and identification. At least, this is the way they would all like to tell it, the exception being the youngest son, Billy (Luke Watts), who was born deaf and who spends most of the time sitting silently amongst the chatter – an act his relatives take for complicity in the family dynamic. This changes when he meets Sylvia (Alison Bell), a woman heavily involved in the Deaf community. Born hearing, but having deaf parents, she is in the middle of losing her hearing completely. This relationship opens Billy up to the Deaf community, which his parents have deliberately kept from him. In their view, connecting Billy with people who are like him would ‘hobble’ him somehow, pushing him down the path of hearing aids and speech therapy.

For many, this play would act as an introduction to the politics and prejudices surrounding deafness, as well as Deafness. Billy’s increasing awareness of how his family’s good but severely misguided intentions have caused him to miss out is thoughtfully set up in the first act – although the increasingly horrible commentary from his father, Christopher (Brian Lipson), on what he thinks of the Deaf community is often almost too much to take in order for a point to get across. But that is what this commentary, this talk, reveals itself to be; this bluster with lack of tenderness means that not only is Billy’s deafness discounted, but so are the opening paragraphs of his mother Beth’s (Sarah Peirse) first novel, and so are the increasing voices in his brother Daniel’s (David Paterson) head. The family is bound in the field of linguistic battle, but no ground is ever given in the name of empathy; they can argue until they’re blue in the face about the free play of signs and signifiers, but the only signing that Billy is truly interested in is summarily dismissed as a dull pantomime, a pale imitation of the English language.

It is the entrance of Sylvia that interrupts and awakens Billy, and Alison Bell encapsulates the heart of the show with her brilliant performance. Her character pulls all the threads together, with her knowledge of hearing and not hearing, as well as being the outsider who must be begrudgingly accepted into a home that defines itself through verbal cruelty, an act she equally dismisses and struggles to protect herself from. Bell has created a restrained and utterly engaging performance, gathering the audience as well as the family around her, hanging on her every word as she is transformed from a conduit for Billy and a representation of the Deaf community to the very woman who both embraces, and disassembles, the motivations and affectations behind the family’s very dysfunction.

I was greatly encouraged to watch a domestic ensemble piece coming out of the MTC. With an increasing, and occasionally worrying, trend towards spending more time on sets than scripts, this was an interesting and engaging piece of theatre, performed by a tightly bound, very talented ensemble that hopefully has scratched the surface of a few issues that, up to now, have not been properly explored. One jarring note was the ending, which felt oversimplified, in some ways embarrassing an up-until-then well written script.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Tribes
By Nina Raine
Director: Julian Meyrick
Set Design: Stephen Curtis
Costume Design: Louise McCarthy
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Composer/Sound Designer: Tim Dargaville

Cast: Alison Bell, Julia Grace, Brian Lipson, David Paterson, Sarah Peirse, Luke Watts

The MTC Theatre, Sumner
4 February–12 March, 2012
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au

See the original post here: http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/tribes-187580

The Clive James Collection

Clive James has a special place in my heart, and in the heart of every one of my flat mates, who at one stage or another during my ten-hour viewing marathon of the recently released Complete Collection exclaimed the same sentence: “Oh, I used to watch him with my parents when I was little.”

The pudgy, deadpan Australian – a precursor to today’s Louis Theroux – charms his way across continents, lifestyles and sexy foils, all the while retaining an 80s sense of wonder at the ever-expanding world the baby boomers were born into, and have tried to overrun. And after watching ten straight hours of his commentary on everything from Japan to the Playboy Mansion, I have an internal monologue in his tone of voice that I seem unable to snap myself out of.

A lot of enjoyment found in the series comes from James’ attitude. Whether it be approaching wild elephants on safari, challenging the motivations of charity-giving squillionaires in Dallas, learning to not only drive a car but race it in a celebrity grand prix in Adelaide or – my highlight – taking part in Takeshi’s Castle, a Japanese adventure game show, each journey seems to emerge as a result of him saying: “Why not?”

This question has traced the trajectory of most of his critical career, as he has written on the subject of art, poetry and badly made-for-television movies. If it’s something the public is going to want to watch and take part in, why not tag along, commentating with a critical eye? This conceit for adventure does seem to overshoot at times, as in each episode at one stage or another you will invariably find him with nearly no kit on, but I do admire his willingness to take on whatever challenges his subjects throw at him.

This being an 80s television show, and with James having made it when he was already approaching middle age, there are moments of generational cringe that are more obvious now my age has moved into double digits. It’s no more obvious than in the episode where he is welcomed into the Playboy mansion, where – entering the pool for a swim – he voiceovers about his company’s extreme good looks before challenging them, in a patronising tone, about their ‘betrayal of feminism’. While this makes me want to punch a cushion, James has enough saving graces through his adventurous spirit to be tolerated in his moments of thoughtlessness.

These moments that make you cringe are offset by the number of times he exposes himself to humiliation at the hands of his own un-worldliness, an old-world bearing that many were only beginning to emerge from, or were being allowed to emerge from, as a result of cheaper travel options in the 70s and 80s.

I can’t say enough about the importance of Clive James in the shaping of middle-class Australian identity at a time when confusion and cringe reigned in our cultural landscape. Though hopefully times have changed, and hopefully we have moved on somewhat in the past 25 years, this collection is a welcome trip into our recent past.

The Clive James Collection
UK, 1980s, 442 mins (three-disc set)

Out now on DVD
Distributor: Madman
Rated M

See the original here: http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/reviews/film-tv-radio/the-clive-james-collection-186998?sc=1

After All This

After All This is an awkward, yet ultimately brave attempt to deal with questions of morality and mortality. The work, which had a short season at this year’s Melbourne Fringe, was created by Elbow Room, who are devising a multi-part work over the next year entitled Now More Than Ever, of which After All This works as both a warm up and a component.

The play is in three parts. The first features two children, played by adult actors, dealing with the early fumblings of religious belief. The second deals with mathematician George Price, and acts as a precursor to the loss of his atheistic ‘faith’, and religious conversion after publishing an equation that attempted to explain the biological and genetic background to the concept of morality. The third deals with a mass suicide in the USA in the late 1990s. In this the cast explains, as a collective, that although their faith is strong enough to go to the ‘next level’, they cannot explain it to those who are not receptive, i.e., the audience.

The initial scene in the play was worrying to me. My pet hate is contemporary theatre and literature using the concept of ‘the child’ as an extended metaphor of some sort of deep seated modern existential crisis. The ultimate culprit of this is Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, the ultimate children’s’ movie made for adults terrified of growing up. Both the opening scene of the play and the film make a misconception of the actual behaviour of a child. They do not go through existence with a sense of ‘wonder’; or if they do, seeing a toaster and seeing a unicorn exists on par. Everything is new to them. Surprise and wonder have to be justified to the letter to write from the point of view of a child, or else the purpose behind using someone that age becomes transparent – the writer, timid about becoming profound, worried about expressing any sort of concrete idea about the piece’s themes – mortality, morality, religious life – instead retreats into a manufactured innocence, as if they have forgotten the height and depth of emotions one feels as a child.

That being said, I was immensely relieved when we got on with the rest of the play. Although this withholding of resolution, or at least this lack of bravery in trying to come to terms with the questions being raised, permeated the rest of the scenes, Elbow Room were still posing interesting ideas, and did so with an excellent use of space. The middle scene about the mathematician was especially interesting in the sudden appearance of a Shakespearean ‘fool’, that informed both the audience and ourselves of Price’s fate. Evening out the delivery of some of the lines from the cult members would have been better in the final scenes, but overall – and playing to the impenetrable attitude towards the themes of the play – was effective.

I was greatly encouraged by seeing this production. A lot of contemporary art seems to be lending itself to superficial ideas or pop philosophy to reflect a fear of growing up spiritually. I felt that Elbow Room had the space to really go for it

in order to come to terms with their questioning of the human condition. Instead of pulling their punches, the company has the potential to knock us for six.

Rating: Three stars

After All This
Devised by Elbow Room
Dear Patti Smith, Lv 2, 181 Smith St, Collingwood
September 27 – October 1 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

To see this original article, go here: http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/after-all-this-185864

The History Operation

The History Operation, playing at the Lithuanian Club during this year’s Melbourne Fringe, is an interesting, if at times overly oblique piece of theatre following a mysterious man’s attempt to unpack a woman’s madness.

Josie is a shut in, completely immersed in a disturbed state that the mysterious Alan is trying to help her out of. Or so he tells Sid, Josie’s suspicious brother, who seems to have only turned up because her rent has gone unpaid and there are bailiffs trying to break the door down. Because of the oblique answers Alan gives, as well as the frequent interruptions of Josie in various states of distress, it becomes more and more unclear as to what is really going on between this trio, and why Sid has come to the house.

I very much enjoyed, to an extent, the vague allusions and inexactness that packed the script. It made the audience something that they are rarely allowed to be in live theatre – detectives within the story. Who exactly is this Alan character; why has the seemingly neglectful Sid appeared; why is Josie trapped in a historical fugue, a fugue that Alan, instead of trying to draw her out of, journeys further into with her? Sid’s accusatory tone towards Alan, unable to believe that someone is capable of acting out of the goodness of their heart, reflects his own feelings of guilt at abandoning his sister, especially when it is hinted that the reason for her madness lies in past wrongdoings on her brother’s part.

This vagueness and allusion, however, ended up going too far. We sat there expecting something a little more to be communicated, for us to be drawn into the story a little more past the initial detective story. If the whole unravelling of the mystery was never to be forthcoming, at least a better depth to the characters could have been given. Admittedly, a fair amount is revealed towards the end of the piece about the source of Josie’s madness, but again the dialogue, almost entirely written in oblique references, made this hard to follow and decidedly anti-climatic. Within this tailed off ending I got smackings of No Exit, or an attempt to hint at it, but with a dearth of hard questions on morality or human action, I was left dissatisfied with the attempt.

Rating: Three stars

The History Operation
Directed by Erin Kelly
Written by Tim Wotherspoon
Lithuanian Club, North Melbourne
September 23 – October 8 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

To see the original article go here: http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/the-history-operation-185802

The Accident

Solo performer Jonno Katz tells the story of two brothers through dance, mime, and onstage transformation with his one man show, The Accident. Sebastian and Roy are brothers, without parents and relying only on each other. Sebastian, the younger brother, is a street statue who is creatively stalling. He turns to Roy, who he worships, to fund a new conceptual installation: a shit machine, a working version of the human digestive system. Roy, who doesn’t see the art but sees dollar signs from commodifying the work, agrees, and proceeds to destroy the integrity of the project by selling off ideas and cutting corners. Meanwhile his girlfriend Emily is distraught at his less than elegant marriage proposal and Sebastian, in an attempt to be the good guy in the situation, makes it so much worse.

Katz is a consummate performer. His use of dance, clowning and physical theatre to dress the story is bold and expressive, often saying more in a few movements than the script itself. His use of a recurring motif – miming an old man with a walker moving towards a light – is a welcome pause in the show, although sometimes this over-enthusiasm for the physical makes the production more elaborate than it needs to be.

Reliance on pre-recorded music is always difficult, especially in a new space, and some of the choices seemed to drown out the meaning of Katz’s movement, or literally drown out some of the spoken word sections. It has obviously been sound-mixed to fill the (at first overwhelmingly) large space, but it is soon demonstrated why such a big venue has been chosen. Katz fills it admirably, but, dressed as he is – and with justification – in a white shirt and black pants, there is always the risk that he is about to plunge into the space and disappear.

The story that is told is interesting, if at times confusing, and juggling the demands of the script as well as the intense physical demands of the piece is a challenge that Katz rises to, but doesn’t always pull off. The portrayal of Emily is frustrating due to her often clichéd construction, which paints her as stupid, shallow and vain. There is more of an emphasis on what she says than physically portraying her relationship to the other characters, whereas a lot was revealed about Roy and Sebastian’s relationship by simply showing Roy stomping along in the park with Sebastian pattering after him.

If the execution of the story of The Accident had been pared down, and had the execution of the piece been a little less ambitious, this would have made for truly enjoyable theatre. As it is, it’s a little overwrought and overdone, but with great potential.

Rating: Three stars

The Accident
Devised and Performed by Jonno Katz
Directed and Choreographed by Irene Sposetti
The Space Dance and Arts Centre, Prahran
September 22 – October 8 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

For the original article go here: http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/the-accident-185804

Frankenstein in Love

The Monash University Student Theatre production of Frankenstein in Love, performed for the Melbourne Fringe at Collingwood Underground Carpark, is an ambitious, visually strong, yet ultimately uneven horror story that misses its mark when it comes to the plot in a manner that distracts from its potential.

The play – an early work by writer and filmmaker Clive Barker (The Books of Blood, Hellraiser) – takes place in a Central American country in the midst of a coup led by the mysterious El Coco (Benjamin Marshall). It is quickly discovered that under the previous dictatorship, an exiled European doctor, Josef Frankenstein (Thomas Middleditch) has been allowed to carry out human experiments on enemies of the people. Now the maimed and monstrous survivors of the doctor’s experiments, including El Coco himself, are after revenge.

The play’s use of visual elements is very strong, with the chorus painted in make-up reminiscent of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and the gore being actually gory, with ripped out hearts and flayed characters shouting for revenge being run of the mill events in this unapologetically lurid play. The lighting is also, for the most part, effective and seamless, working well with the use the actors make of the underground venue: slowly creeping out of the dark, the audience seeing them before the other characters do. With all of these elements in play, it was curious that the delivery of the text was decidedly un-camp, with the exception of Tegan Harrod’s Lazaro, who nailed her Igor/Renfield-like character with a great mix of physical performance and vicious buffoonery.

I would have understood the choice of a serious portrayal of all of these elements, had the potentially strong thematic content of the script been explored. At a time when Central America seems to be tearing itself apart, at a time when torture and body horror is the norm for both filmmakers and government superpowers, at a time when fresh batches of war criminals continue to be unearthed from conflicts that ended not so long ago, it seemed a shame that none of these modern anxieties were used to lend a helping hand to the production in any consistent way.

Ultimately, a choice had to be made on what everyone was to run with. Uttering thematic elements as tokenisms is not the same as a thorough and thoughtful exploration of them. Auschwitz, coups, human experimentation, all within an unstable Central American government; so many strong ideas were circulating under the surface of the script. A utilisation of the elements of horror, coupled with some reference to the sociological anxiety or disruption in which most horror stories are contextualised when they are written, was obvious in its absence in this production.

Rating: Two and a half stars

Monash Uni Student Theatre present
Frankenstein in Love
By Clive Barker
Directed by Emma Palackic and Sophie Phillips
Production Design: Sophie Phillips
Lighting Design: Jason Lehane
Sound design/Composition: Ross Unger
Cast: Benjamin Marshall, Alexanda Wynne, Rosie Noone, Joel Skurrie, Thomas Middleditch, Tegan Harrod, Josh Karlik, Nick Fry, James jackson, Henry Brooks and Isobel Roberts-Orr

Collingwood Underground Car Park
September 16 – 17 and 19 – 25 

Melbourne Fringe Festival
September 21 – October 9

See the original post here: http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/frankenstein-in-love-185671

What I learned at the Edinburgh Fringe

The best time to philosophise about the pros and cons of travel to an international festival, or specifically Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is when you are in extended transit on your way home. Hungry, smelly, tired, and still yet to buy enough duty free alcohol to kill a Jersey Cow, now is the perfect time to reflect on the whirlwind of the Ed Fringe.

Our show, SNAFU Theatre’s Murder at Warrabah House, ran for approximately sixteen nights from the start of the festival. The beginning was when crowds were still getting into gear and there was a freshness to the whole event. As time wears on, audiences, as well as critics, tend to dig their heels in more. Trends appear. Doors to amazing and innovative ideas open. People get very, very drunk, all day long.

The final weeks of Edinburgh Fringe tend towards the more prestigious acts that have received a lot of buzz from previous success in the Fringe or from critical buzz generated from festivals in other cities, such as London or the Brighton Fringe. An example of this was the Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose leader lives in the UK in political exile and whose members suffer constant threats from the country’s dictatorship. From the outset this was a must-see show, developed in London and premiering only in the final week of the Fringe with heaps of publicity to back it up. The buzz was well deserved and left me needing a quiet sit down afterwards.

But we are already about to delve into the Edinburgh Fringe’s mess of contradictions. The real hit of the festival (or arguably one of them?) was a little show by a bunch of kids vaguely associated with the Bristol Old Vic graduate program called the Wardrobe Ensemble. Their devised musical called Riot! was about a riot that occurred at the opening of an Ikea store six years ago in London. The ensemble of eight talented and annoyingly youthful artists incorporated a thoughtful story with belly laughs, physical theatre, dance, music and simple yet incredibly effective art direction (including a canny use of Ikea lamps as their sole lighting gear) to make a great piece of theatre. The reason I went? Because a friend saw it and told me to. How many people did I tell to see it? Three. How many people did they tell to see it? Who knows. But Riot! got its consistently large audiences from enthusiastic word of mouth, as well as from excellent reviews that they seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to receive. And you know what? I saw them out flyering on the street as well.

Both of these shows ran in the early afternoon. A trend that we did not know about before, but have learned now, is that theatre is generally on from the early afternoon until around 6pm, after which the stand up comedy kicks in. The rationale in many audiences’ minds is that they can see theatre and bawl their eyes out during the day, and then cheer themselves up and get drunk at stand up that night.

For us Australians living a 26 hour flight then a five hour train ride away from the excitement and fun of an Edinburgh Fringe it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people who choose the Edinburgh Fringe as the vehicle to mount their production simply because they live two hours away. Not everyone is sinking thousands of dollars and jet lag into appearing there. As well as the companies like Belarus and Wardrobe, there are also high school groups bringing up their plays, lots and lots and lots of sketch comedy; there’s buskers and puppeteers participating in the free fringe, and so many other types of performer. The quality and verve with which participants are involving themselves varies massively.

I will definitely participate in the Edinburgh Fringe again. However, thought needs to be given, perhaps, to the merits of Australian artists continuing to participate, or seeing the pinnacle of exposure within the confines of the Edinburgh Festival.

One of the things I found surprising during my time in Scotland was that those that ran the Fringe, as well as the audiences hitting the streets, were genuinely pleased and enthusiastic that anyone had turned up at all. Then there was the receptiveness and curiousity of the audiences. People bought tickets to whatever tickled their fancy, whether they knew the performers or not. There were certainly ‘hot tickets’, but the overriding idea was that everyone has their own tastes, their own ideas of what they would like to see. People saw shows because they could, not because they should; a motivation that I sometimes feel the Australian arts scene needs to work on.

The Edinburgh Fringe, like so many other Fringe and art festivals reflects that old phrase: If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own; that refreshing new hit, or special discovery is out there, you just have to take the chance and go out and find it.

Link to the original article http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/opinions/arts/what-i-learned-at-the-edinburgh-fringe-185610