CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

RW: Attract/Repel

The more I wanted to write this review quickly, the more I wanted it out and about, succint, streamlined and brilliant, the more I was tripping over my own inarticulation. The enthusiasm I had for writing seemed to derive from not knowing what it was I had to say, nor how. Why such caution before a very positive review? Because the praise I had to offer for Attract/Repel came from an unusual place; because of an avoidance of reviewing the previous show by Melbourne Town Players. Because the material does not easily lend itself to a watertight argument that can neatly encapsulate all that it does as a show. Finally because this review immediately follows a fascinating, if at times painful dialogue that grew out of a condemnatory critique of En Trance, a show that made artistic and dramaturgical choices that failed precisely where A/R succeeds.

If the foyer chatter on the opening night was anything to go by, we were in a minefield of opinions, impossible to exhaust in a 1,000-word review, no matter how well-chosen the thousand. I was midway through my annual contemplation of multiculturalism, having just found the perfect interlocutor. That, about 100 hours into the discussion, I discovered the interlocutor was more precisely the sensei, having written the text which seminally, famously, taught me all my thoughts on multiculturalism back in 2006, did not help. I was arguing with my spiritual uncle, if not exactly father, it turned out, and he was more than happy to keep challenging my hasty (but oh so quotable!) conclusions.

Terry Yeboah and Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

“Seeing a work that deals with topics I’ve spent solid three years thinking about”, I complained to Neandellus soon after, “makes it harder, not easier to write about. I have too many half-formed, unquotable thoughts.”

“Make your sensei write it”, was his suggestion. If only! Sensei (whom we’ll call ‘Ian’) declared he knew nothing about theatre, and was happy with correcting me. So I started:

Amidst the uneven, but fulsome praise for Attract/Repel circulating the foyer on opening night, it was apparent that this show’s merit arises in its slipping almost un-noticed across a series of borders that themselves are rarely ever acknowledged as such.

But ‘Ian’ was already slapping me on the wrist: “What you mean to add is: Borders which some have named the borders of whiteness, with quiet encroachments of the real into everyday fantasies of white supremacy in multicultural Australia.”

He continued: “The truths enacted through the show operated on an inversion of the assumptions presumed normal to a functional society, a logic more dependent on the potential for misunderstanding, misrecognition and mistaken identity.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” I nodded hastily, and continued:

It is quite different from The Melbourne Town Players’ previous work in not being veiled, stripping away most of the veneer of artiness, leaving the art instead. Yet A/R has been shaped with a clear eye and a strong dramaturgical hand into an exquisitely crafted work, building a rich spectrum of thought and feeling out of associative nuances. It takes courage and maturity to recognise the theatre in four people on chairs talking about their personal experience, and it was, indeed, beautifully crafted theatre. 

Four performers, fluorescent tubes, and a wall painted blackboard-black. A/R is beautifully ordinary, threateningly postdramatic perhaps, as the actors ask and answer personal questions, tell funny stories (and tales about racial stereotyping, from the butt-end of essentialising assumptions, tend to be hysterically funny), find dead ends to arguments, change direction, change key, but ultimately, and intentionally go nowhere in particular. Where was the dramatic development?, complained one person whom Ming-Zhu Hii would have, in the days of Mink Tails, labelled identifiably white. I looked at ‘Ian’ for answers, and he obliged:

“The lack of a progressive movement to a climactic denouement is one of the show’s great strengths, instead presenting a series of plateaux oscillating between affective highs and lows – disgust and desire, anger and joy, sufficient to illustrate the tenor of its thesis. It was true to the subject matter. There is no resolution to the problem – you go from feeling elated because you’re accepted, to crashing down because of some racist remark; you solve a problem, you find another. Attract, Repel.”

Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

Relieved, I could go on:

How to talk about A/R, which can be read as a very successful moment in the Australian political theatre, without getting factional? It is a beautiful work, but its strengths and innovations really shine when looked at as political theatre – and the political discourse now needed to be employed would likely be alienating. 

There is a strong nod to Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and I – far more so than to circus acts like an oak tree: the staged conversation is personal and unforced, improvised-looking rather than scripted for theatrical friction. While A/R does not quite reach the same magnitude of light-handed yet devastating effect, there is no shame in not being Jerome Bel. There are moments in the show of similar gentle, but enormous, destabilisation of effect. Right after a reasonably heavy story of racial discrimination, Terry Yeboah starts talking about his white girlfriend, and unexpectingly breaks out saying, She’s here tonight! Hi, baby!, and she responds! The effect of turning our heads back into the audience, seeing someone normal, socialised, unremarkable, in the place of a villain, belies interpretation. 

It could have so easily gone wrong many times; the politics of the effect are more noteworthy than the politics of the representation that occurred. By definition, political theatre tries to ‘make things happen’, as Caryl Churchill once said; in Michael Patterson’s book Strategies of Political Theatre, British playwrights overwhelmingly defined political theatre as theatre that has an impact on the audience, that affects them beyond the doors of the theatre building. In other words, whether what is staged is four children playing, or racial tension, is not the deciding factor in whether a theatre piece is political or not.  

By keeping the performers as performers, and the audience as audience, A/R renounces the very role of theatre as a heightened state of exception that, by definition, confirms the rule. In order to build resonance in a string of moments, anecdotes and effects that are inherently unremarkable; it strips away the entire frame of ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation that has been hanging over textual theatre like an Aristotelian hangover, and that political theatre in particular doesn’t know how to do without.  

Yet it is not all just pussyfooting detail. The interventions are real, but subtle. From the moment she draws a CHINK SCALE on the wall, rather than spitting on its implicit racism, Jing-Xuan Chan and the others proceed to explicate the variety of positions they may occupy depending on the situation. We are immediately in very interesting territory. Here, rather than mere victims of incipient racism, is an illustration of strategic essentialism.

‘Ian’ nudged me sternly: “I don’t think you understand what strategic essentialism is. In this case, it was used as a tool in the hands of skilled players on the field of identity politics, as elaborated in the discussion post-En Trance, with the provocation as much in language and speech-acts themselves.

“Like Fear of a Brown Planet?” I wondered. The the political intervention of the humorous, very light-hearted A/R, a gritty show with a smiling face, is in the performative act of saying what are to some, unsayable things – again. There is here a more serious question whether the ultimate effect isn’t lost on those audience members who found the language simply failing to align with their truth; is the alignment noticeable, recognisable when it happens? Notice the ‘again’: it is the iteration that matters, that sets down a possibility of a pattern, and that gets recognised. Without going deeper into a discussion that can get bogged along the lines of you don’t understand; it has never happened to you, which may be as correct as it is unlikely to make one any friends, it is hard to finish this point. 

‘Ian’ pondered: “One of the chief problems we have experienced coming here was the deeply normative tolerance prescribed by Australian multiculturalism. Just like the whiteness of the true Australian skin: always invisible to itself, denied, yet something for all to comply with, more or less, by degrees, for acceptance to accrue.”

I jumped in: “The mind-numbingly idiotic language…”

“I think you’ll find you mean ‘mind-numbingly essentialist’…” ‘Ian’ sighed.

Alright. The mind-numbingly essentialist language, according to which Australia was diverse because of the many cuisines on offer, the maintenance of cultural identities by the shimmying of traditional dances on Federation Square once a year, was taken extremely seriously, elevated into a sort of magical language for getting by in life. To anyone aware of how much more complicated cultural pluralism is on the ground, this was the equivalent of one infant’s babytalk imposed on all the kids in the kindergarten as the right language for that age. But here it was, an invisible, white language, neatly split into politically correct nonsense on the one hand, and bureaucratic proscription (“if you don’t like it here”, “we choose who comes to this country…”) on the other. All the messy rest, heretically non-compliant with our Platonically ideal multiculture, exeunt. 

Georgina Naidu, Terry Yeboah and Jing-xuan Chan. Photography by Naomi Wong.

This is why there was sheer thrill in A/R when acronyms FOB and ABC were discussed, points marked on the CHINK SCALE and nuances of being called ‘nigger’ dissected. It was both a reclamation and exposure (again!) of ground that was true, existing, and all but invisible. 

“All well and right,” Neandellus popped his head through the window. “But is there any formal innovation there? Is it good theatre?”

“It’s very good political theatre…” I stumbled and looked at my sensei for argumentation. He was trying to make a bed for himself under the table, and looked frankly disappointed with me:

“Performative politics – i.e. the politics are iteratively done rather than represented. Butler makes a distinction between performance and performativity. Its important not to conflate them. The formal innovation is in lack of denouement.”

“Performativity and performance. One that accrues and one that’s mimetic, right?” I was testing my argumentative powers.

“Yes”, allowed my spiritual uncle. “Sort of. It will do. Mimesis is out of fashion. Accrual is in. But the plateaux bit is important. No orgasmic endings. Just more and more plateaux and deferral of climax.”

There was nowhere for the conversation to go after that. We politely retreated, happy to know we had just seen a great show.

Guerrilla Semiotics would like to thank Ian Woodcock for his generous support during the realisation of this project.

Attract/Repel. With a cast including Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah. Music by experimental jazz guitarist Yusuke Akai. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Lighting design (inspired by Dan Flavin) by Damien McLean, with lighting concept support by Rachel Burke. Concept and direction by Ming-Zhu Hii. Producers: Nicholas Coghlan and Shalini Nair. Development Supported by Full Tilt Creative Development. The Store Room, 17 September-10 October 2009

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8 thoughts on “RW: Attract/Repel

  1. Gilligan says:

    Wow.

    Not sure what show you were watching Jana. What I saw was a massively self indulgent, superficial observation into racism and identity.

    Australia, whilst being extremely multi-cultural, is also a hugely racist country. Racist conflict has had an enormous impact on our country, and the conflicts are still simmering away today. This show only scraped the surface of the whole issue. We spent an hour or so sitting there listening to four performers sitting around talking about themselves and their sheltered and quite boring experiences as non-white Australians. With the mountain of source material available when looking into a a subject such as this (images of white men chasing an Islamic man along a beach during the Cronulla riots come to mind), I find it perplexing that all they could come up with was “It’s really difficult when my white friends jokingly call me chink” and “sometimes I’m really Asian, but sometimes I’m like white-Asian”. I was waiting for light, surface based nature of the beginning of the show to give way into a deeper exploration, but it never happened.

    I think the low point was when two of the performers were writing racist slurs on the wall in chalk, and then one of the performers sat in a triangle of lights and started crying whilst the fourth performer sat behind her laughing. If anyone can say this sounds like good or interesting theatre they need their head read. It was excruciating.

    I don’t go to the theatre to see actors be affected, to see how emotional and powerful what they are doing is for them; I go to the theatre so I can be affected, as does everyone who goes to the theatre. I’m sure creating this show was a really deeply powerful experience for the artists involved, unfortunately all of that experienced stayed on stage, none of it being shared with the audience, leaving us completely unaffected.

  2. I liked the show. Quite a lot, actually.

    But political theatre is about “ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation”? Those are the kinds of qualities I associate with people like Howard Barker. Or Genet. Or, god help me, Brook. Who, yes, are certainly political artists – in a very particular sense of the word – but hardly typify what’s generally known as political theatre in Australia. They in fact aggressively attack the liberal humanistic enlightenment tradition that is the actual tradition of western political theatre.

  3. Hello, Alison and Gilligan.

    Alison, there is an extent to which all art is political, by destabilising prejudgements of dot-dot-dot, yes. That’s a very precious role, and one that discussions of ‘political art’ tend to overlook. But I would place A/R in the overtly political tradition of theatre, rather, the one that, as quoted, “tries to make people do things”, art as a sort of activism.

    I think theatre, as a collective and social artform, is well placed to experiment with “making people do things”, but this is a very different approach to purification/ritual, and hinges on, in my view, avoidance of catharsis. Brecht grappled with catharsis his entire life, and his work can be seen as a constant deflation of emotional energy in a play, de-focusing, cutting it short, turning it on itself… The end of that path has still not been reached (which is why Brecht is so important); I thought War of the Roses demonstrated with extreme intelligence how catharsis can be danced around (for 8 hours). Because, if catharsis occurs, theatre cannot take its effect out of the theatre (building), cannot “make people do things”. Catharsis has a stabilising effect, and political theatre, as in revolutionary, uprising theatre (we’re not talking right-wing, reactionary politics of ballet and musicals), attempts to destabilise.

    Gilligan, the problem with what you’re saying is that it seems you wanted to see a condemnation of a particular kind of racism, which for whatever reason you perceive as a genuine problem worth talking about. Now, from statistics, news, and my experience, that is not a very common form of racism in Australia: the fact that Cronulla remains a name we all know testifies to it (otherwise it would be one of many nameless race riots). I cannot think of another racially mixed place with fewer incidence of racial violence. Give me an example.

    Instead, what Australia does very well, I think, is bureaucratised racism, very soft (but cumulative) quotidian racism, and cultural racism of everyone trying to be very English, but not calling it for the particularity that it is. This what the show was about, and it was recognisable.

    The reason why I spoke of “exceptions that confirm the rule” is precisely that supposedly agitational theatre that, eg, addresses a one-off race riot in Cronulla, basically has the effect of making everyone in the audience feel great about themselves. We look at the drama, we feel that we’re experiencing the right emotions at the right time, our anger is purged at the end (catharsis), and we can, at every moment, know we’re better people because we would never do such extremely bad things. Politically, that’s an incredibly self-indulgent position for an audience member. It was precisely the mundaneness of the stories explored in A/R that made it a political piece.

    I got slightly annoyed at your suggestion that these stories did not depict racism. Politically (again, this piece needs to be talked about as direct action, not as representation), are you aware of how much harm can be done by saying that, below a certain level, a kind of behaviour doesn’t qualify as discrimination? That there is nothing to complain about, so shush?

    It reminded me of an incident I witnessed about 8 years ago in a cafe in Croatia. A man was verbally harassing his girlfriend, loudly, for a long time. Finally, we overheard him say to her: “Look, I’m really good to you! I don’t beat you up!”

  4. Gilligan says:

    Hi Jana,

    I’d like first to clarify a couple of things, as I feel in your response you have misinterpreted/misrepresented my initial comments.

    I never said that I wanted the show to be a “condemnation of a particular kind of racism”. The example I gave of Cronulla was one image that came to mind. I could have pointed out several others- Indian students recently shutting down Flinders St for a day in protest to racial violence, or any of the actual incidents they were protesting about, The Redfern riots, or you could just take a walk down any main road in Melbourne’s inner north and see the daily tension and often violence between white and non-white Australian’s.

    However, to simply look at and highlight that example you are missing my point. Clearly the show dealt with none of these larger scale events/issues by choice. I understand that they chose to examine a much more personal, smaller scale level of racism, one that would hopefully avoid the “I would never do that” response from the audience you were talking about.

    I also never suggested that “these stories did not depict racism”. I said that the stories they were sheltered and boring, which they are if you compare them to the more extreme cases of racism that happen on a daily basis in Australia. Clearly from the performance we can tell these four people haven’t had it particularly hard. They haven’t had to survive living in one of the violent and under funded housing commission estates in the inner suburbs as thousands of disadvantaged non-white Australians do currently. They haven’t been brutally bashed on Melbourne’s streets as happens to non-white Australian’s every week. I know these are again strong examples, but they are true and are an accurate reflection of what is happening now. To sit there and listen to four performers talk about how it’s hard when their friends jokingly call them chink or say “what’s up ma nigger” (which they actually spent a lot of the show joking about themselves) shows that this piece didn’t have much of an idea about the whole issue. It was very safe. I’m not saying that their stories weren’t depicting racism, I’m saying that it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to much of what’s going on everyday in Australia. I felt like they were really dancing around the issue.

    Also, I don’t see how the “mundaneness of the stories” made them impact on the audience more in any way. I don’t write angry messages on people’s letter boxes, I don’t refuse food if a “wog” has touched it, so therefore the audiences reaction was very much one of “I would never do that”. Nothing they did on stage avoided the audience feeling superior to the racists the performers were talking about, so I have to disagree with your argument there.

    What I really wanted was the show to go deeper. Not for it to be just a show about Cronulla or racial violence; but rather for it to examine both the extreme and subtle variations of racism in Australia, for the show to transcend and blur the boundaries between the different levels. Cronulla wasn’t a “one off event” as you suggested Jana. It was the result of years of tension between races in a community, and its causes are wide and varied. I wanted the show to go beyond the fact that Australia is racist, everybody knows that already. I wanted the show to offer a deeper exploration, that might ask questions about WHY we are like this. As an audience member, to see a piece that examined how the “mundane”, everyday examples of racism that Attract/Repel offered lead to more extreme examples, would have had us leaving the theatre asking questions of ourselves, rather than leaving bored by an hour of people talking around an issue. They gave us “what?”, they needed to ask “why?”. The show was quite simply nowhere near complex enough for the issue it was tackling.

  5. Ian says:

    I wonder if Gilligan has ever been on the receiving end of an exchange that goes like this: “Where are you from?” “Melbourne”, “No, I mean where are you really from?”. The implicit violence in these quotidian exchanges is something one cannot understand unless one sees them as being at the heart of the very issue Gilligan seems not to understand, and thus wants an answer to the question of why such things happen at the other end of the continuum on the beach at Cronulla or on the platforms of suburban railway stations.

    Secondly, I want to know what Gilligan means about being bored. Boredom is not a simple response at all. Its the polar opposite of the stock-standard ‘interesting’ that is the standard of value for the middle-classes here, and especially those of English descent or affiliation. But by themselves, neither boring or interesting tell us anything, merely a more educated way of saying ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I like it’.

    What seems to have been boring here is the lack of extremism. The argument is not moving anywhere from first base. No-one was hit, thus, boring. But they were hit – all of those words have caused countless wounds, and deep ones, to their recipients, and are reiterated in every encounter that takes the form of a “Where are you really from?” inquisition, though those of us who have been there many times learn what’s coming before even answering the opening salvo.

    I have lived in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne since 1991. The idea that they are a simmering cauldron of inter-racial tension is bollocks, to put it frankly. But there are a lot of testosterone-fuelled exchanges between teenagers, mainly boys, who will use any dimension of difference to taunt and humiliate and provoke a fight – much like what happened at Cronulla.

  6. Ian says:

    For a more theoretically informed exegesis on why a work like ‘Attract/Repel’ is so good at what it does, I strongly suggest a thorough reading of Ghassan Hage’s book “White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society”. Though it was published over 10 years ago and is about Australia, it is still current and has become a key text in anti-racist studies internationally. WN works with ethnographic material that is so quotidian in nature that even A/R looks like its been sensationalised. And its a rollicking good read and extremely funny. And Hage was involved in transformative work with the SLSC members at Cronulla as part of the many programs instituted after the riots to foster some kind of dialogue – he’s not just an ivory tower intellectual.

  7. Gilligan says:

    Sorry Ian, I wasn’t after hitting.

    I also wasn’t just after a “why” on the extreme end of the issue, but a why on the subtle end as well. As in perhaps some thought from the show on why we have a culture where we ask “where are you really from?” My issue is with the lack of exploration conducted by Attract/Repel. It was the lack of exploration that bored me. You can analyse boredom anyway you like, but sometimes people just get bored if what they’re watching isn’t engaging. And I didn’t find attarct/repel at all engaging.

    In regards to current racial tensions in Melbourne, pick up a paper mate, there are young indian men being bashed on a weekly basis purely for their nationality.

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