CITIES, spatial poetics, theatre, travel notes

on form and theatre; vignette

My most cherished discovery has been a generation of very young Croatian theatre-makers, absolutely fearless. This year, Gordana Vnuk, the iron lady of Eurokaz and an uncompromising believer in new forms of expression, pulled out these kids that haven't even graduated yet, and what beautiful things they have shown. I have seen so much brave, crushing, beautiful form on Eurokaz 2008, so much of it absolutely riveting.

Point one. Marina Petkovic.

Black box. Four actors wearing black. They describe exactly who they are, what they do. I am Gertrude. From here to here is my bed. It has four pillows on it. I sleep here alone, when I'm not performing my marital duties, in which case my husband, the king, sleeps here too. There is a double door here, a window over here, and a long red curtain covering it. I am wearing a white nightgown. I am Hamlet. I am wearing black, with a dagger hanging here. I am Polonius. I am hiding behind this curtain.

Gertrude and Hamlet sit down, chair to chair, holding pages of Shakespeare's text, reading as neutrally as they described the setting, the costumes. Hamlet gets up, stabs Polonius, and comes back. Gertrude, still neutrally: Oh what you have done? Argument; neutrally. Meanwhile, Polonius is dying in a most naturalistic way, shaking and curling on the floor. About five minutes. Hamlet is getting upset: he stammers, misreads his lines, sweats, has to repeat the words multiple times. Slowly, minutes passing, Polonius drags himself to the two chairs, grips Hamlet's leg. Hamlet chokes, tries to shake him off, still reading from the pages, very upset. Gertrude gets up, pulls, sits on Polonius, keeps reading. Both very upset now: words are mangled, phrases interrupted, repeated. Sweat. Polonius dies. It takes them time, cooperation and physical combinatorics to carry him out, through the double door. End.

Point two. Same performance.

Claudius, Gertrude and Horatio describe the setting of a ceremonial hall in great detail, each focusing on the parts that matter the most. This is my throne, because I am the king. Here hangs my portrait, 7×7m… No, 9×9. My throne is made out of gold, with a big sphere here, all covered in gems. My throne is a bit smaller. It's made out of wood. It has a golden sphere here. My portrait hangs with the king's. 6×6m. The hall is really big and spherical. If I stood here , and the actor leaves the performance space through the side door, walks out in the middle of the courtyard, I would be in the centre of the room. It feels good and comfy, like a church. Here is where Hamlet and I used to play when we were little. Now we're not allowed anymore. Then Ophelia. There is a river flowing through here. Break. She creates, with words, a natural landscape on top of the ceremonial hall. She describes her daydreaming in the forest. End.

This is all fantastic to watch. The rise or fall of this kind of theatre – of any kind of theatre, I believe – is in the extent to which they can engage their audience. Not merely for entertainment value: engagement improves attention, concentration, focus. Yet to qualify why something is engaging theatre, and something else fails to engage, is near-impossible. Finally, Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it was a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secret of the universe.

I am sure that these two essays did not attempt to give the answers I found. They were results of a workshop around Gavella, a Croatian theatre theorist and maker, whose writings I have never read. The first was almost certainly not a critique of text-based performance as promulgated in Anglophone countries, although it was the single most powerful critique I have ever seen. The second could not have been a reply to the West End Whingers, regarding the absolute mimicry of life in the direction of the ugly one by Ramin Gray, performed at the Royal Court in London. It may have been a demonstration of how little theatre needs to create setting, a mise-en-scéne, and how easily the audience can juggle in mind multiple, contradictory sets of signs, but it probably responded to Gavella instead. And yet, I cannot forget these two scenes. They were simple, minimalist, and unforgettable.

My sister, a 14-year-old with no experience of experimental theatre, not only sat through the 120 minutes of this black narrativeless experiment, but excitedly quoted moments from the performance days later.

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CITIES, poetics of life

Attempts on Her Life; or the anatomy of a decade.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre: Attempts on Her Life. Written by Martin Crimp. Directed by Susie Dee. Sound Design and Composition by Kelly Ryall. Set and Costume Design by Jeminah Reidy. Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti. Audio-Visual Design by Nicholas Verso. Cast: Rhys Aconley-Jones, Chloe Boreham, Ananth Gopal, Kali Hulme, Joshua Lynzaat, Jen Mackie, Laura Maitland, Jan Mihal, Ella Roberts, Anna Teresa Scheer, Sophie Testart and Megan Twycross. Guild Theatre, University of Melbourne, 16 – 24 May 2008. Bookings on 03) 8344 7447 or www.union.unimelb.edu.au/tickets.

A virtually identical version of this article can be found online on vibewire.net.

There is something about the theatre of blood and sperm (in the sense of a distinct spatio-temporal artistic trend, centred on the UK, but also a bit of Germany, Austria and the ex-Balkans) that seems to me to speak most clearly and precisely of what 1990s were. Watching Attempts on Her Life, a Melbourne University Student Union Theatre production of a 1997 text by Martin Crimp, for the first time I came to realise how our entire worldview changed with the war in Bosnia. It is a view from the distance, and yet to me (who has spent the 1990s somewhat closer to the epicentre) this enormous, eye-opening change of perspective was never reported as accurately as it is in these wounded, screaming plays. Not even by, say, Kusturica. I had a vague idea, previously, that Bosnia became Western Europe's big trauma, a failure of optimism, but never took it seriously ('our suffering is so much bigger'). In retrospect, the crash of hopes within Bosnia was probably complementary, rather than contrasting, to the larger disillusion.

So what really happened in the 1990s? There was our war, a brutal, senseless and incredibly immediate war. In Britain, there was the introduction of CCTV and the rise of surveillance society. There were the first doubts on consumerism, channelled through the early slacker fiction. After the ambitious 1980s, it started becoming apparent that our enormous appetite was not just a consequence of our fulfilling ambitions, that it was not a constructive consumption, a transformation of elements. It had turned into consumption for consumption's sake, blind and insatiable, until, to paraphrase both Slavoj Žižek and Viktor Pelevin (1999), it became a monotonous murmur of absorbing and disgorging, joyless but for the punctuating, ever briefer wow!-moments. There was the first mention of eating disorders. Yet the formal rhetoric of the mass (and not so mass) media, inherited from the 1980s, was that of the end of history, the best of all possible worlds, endless joy, how lucky are we?!

Today, the lag between what we feel and what we are told to feel is slightly different – post-9/11 world is a sombre world – and the dissident behaviour nowadays is, perhaps, to trust thy neighbour and not feel afraid (see American indie). Then, however, the arts reacted with an explosion of violent nihilism, as if subconsciously we were trying to heal the gap between what we heard and what we felt. It was the decade of Trainspotting (1996), Nirvana (1991-1994), Tracy Emin, The Prodigy (early 1990s), Fight Club (1999). Even reading early Bridget Jones (1995) leaves an aftertaste, for all the shopping and gossiping is framed by dysfunctional eating and persistent binge drinking. When the towers collapsed, Baudrillard said they had to; we had been making them collapse in films so persistently we brought it on ourselves. Our return of the repressed. But perhaps it was simply the external reality bursting the same feel-good bubble that we were trying to burst from the inside, through our art, all along.

It was all slightly different elsewhere. While Europe had a real war on its doorstep, the US had a televised one that – again quoth Baudrillard – never happened. I would be curious to know what an Australian subject in 2008 may find in Attempts on Her Life, what sort of reading they would have. Perhaps the war on terror has created the same de-localised anxiety here. But my entire life flashed before my eyes. In-yer-face was so good, so accurate at nailing the threads that connected our fears. Perhaps it is the theatrical medium that allowed these plays to circumvent plot, cause and effect, setting or rounded characters, and keep alive the tenuous threads between acts and emotions, that now makes them such a mirror of a decade. In Blasted (1995), the violence Out There and its impact on our ability to love. In Family Stories (1998), the guilt for our children's future. In Woman-Bomb (2003, but it counts), the raging impotence in the face of coerced serenity, governmental soothing.

In Attempts, the inability to quite pinpoint what it is that worries us, between the everyday hedonism here and immense suffering elsewhere, results in a disconnected series of semi-portraits, of semi-stories, of variations on a feeling. The text is subtitled 17 Scenarios for theatre: the death of Anna, Anny, Anja, Anushka, figurative, artistic or medically sound, is narrated in fragments, dialogues, commentary, songs, video, arguments, answering machine messages. Recurring motifs are war, femininity, surveillance, despair. Not innocently, the empty vessel on whose person the scenarios are played out is a woman.

Melbourne University Student Union Theatre's production, in the skillful hands of Susie Dee, plays with the possibilities of theatre. As much as the context of certain dialogues is transparent, they are never staged literally, but hover in a dreamspace, a not-quite-space. As a result, the production refrains from situating the meaning in any one place (imagine the boredom of 17 times same), leaving it both associative and open-ended.

Photo credits: Vicki Jones

Jeminah Reidy's set puts the audience in the centre, in a swarm of swivel chairs, while the stage hugs the sides of the theatre, as a long, white, tiled underground station. The actors (for there are no characters) talk to each other, argue, across the auditorium, which results in some beautiful mass movement, as audience members swivel left to right, following the action. From one fragment of a story to another, the focus shifts from left to right, backstage to front, until, all possibilities exhausted, it ends exactly where it started. Cyclic nature of life or exhaustion, it nonetheless feels complete, concluded.

Some of the attempts on her life are simply exquisite: a battle of art criticism over her posthumous exhibition of suicide notes, despite all its mime of realism staged as a dream, a nightmare, of a gallery opening. Autobiography of a sex worker (replete with vivre-sa-vie-claims), confessed in third-person (restrained and fragile Megan Twycross), behind a screen, with a mass dance, interrupted half-way and from then on dictated by the translator (militantly French Chloe Boreham). An unexpected song (excellent Kali Hulme). The central point of the performance to me seemed to be a faux-advertisement for pink caddillac Anny, presented in Bosnian Croatian (I may have misheard here, and if so I apologise for any offense) with a sexy MC (rather good-looking Jan Mihal), turbo-folk music and three dancers in fluorescent pink parkas (overflowing with references to nouveau riche, war profiteers, the new bad taste). As the advertisement progressively degenerated, turning from the sum of our desires („always a beautiful blonde inside“) into the sum of our repressed anxieties (with „no room for Gypsies, Arabs, Kurds, blacks“), I was reminded not only of the vast semantic cathedral attached to the possession of a good car in a place like Bosnia, but also of those sarcastic news programs Danijel Žeželj created in Sun City (1993), in which genocide, wars, and new ozone holes were interspersed with hardcore porn and an order: smile wider!, wider!

Is Melbourne University Student Union Theatre always this good? Was I meant to be aware? Only the occasional acting glitch points to this being a non-professional production, rather than something that Malthouse could be staging. Right. Now. It did help that Crimp’s play may be the most brutally, icily poetic text I have encountered in a Melbourne theatre in a while. Whichever way, this outstandingly creative and courageous production may be the best thing currently playing.

See also: On Stage (and walls)

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