Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews October 24th [October 26]

I’ve been to see a huge number of Melbourne Festival shows and concerts in the last two weeks, everything from 80’s-style ska music to an indigenous re-telling of King Lear to a work involving a teenage girl, a blackboard and a box of chalk.

Often in the past Melbourne Festival directors have issued what could almost be described as manifestos for their Festivals, outlining the themes, provocations, aims, etc. But it doesn’t seem as if the current Artistic Director Josephine Ridge has tried to do that, so it’s been interesting trying to identify some themes that have emerged organically within the program. A lot of the theatre programming has been quite discomforting, rather than comforting, for audiences. I found that there were some shows I could scarcely enjoy at the time but they stayed with me for days afterwards, and I’m still thinking about them.

So for me some of the themes bubbling up this year involved beasts and ‘bestiality’; the relationships between animals and humans and the ‘animal’ behaviour of humans; the fraught emotional lives of children and teenagers; and in terms of humour, an emphasis on irony, an undercutting of the deeply serious with an attitude of profound un-seriousness, including a willingness to make fun of art itself, which is surely a sign of a healthy artistic culture.
You could argue that these themes reflect our current social anxieties about the relationships between humans and animals, and about children’s safety and wellbeing, and perhaps they also reflect our desire to laugh in the face of the serious and frightening challenges facing humanity.
Or, you know, not.

‘Life and Times’ is the first episode of a four-part theatrical marathon created by the New York based-company Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, founded by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. I’m still trying to figure this show out. I can’t quite decide whether it’s all an elaborate piss-take of musical theatre, or whether it’s actually doing something very profound – or both! The show’s creators conducted a series of recorded phone interviews with a number of people (Americans) for which they simply asked the question, ‘Can you tell me your life story?’ They then transcribed those stories, including every um, ah, you know, like, every digression and back-track and mispronunciation, every interesting and banal bit of the story, and set them to music. Then a cast of ten performers sings those fragmented life stories accompanied by a live ban, and often whilst doing a series of elaborate synchronised dance moves. So you literally have people singing the words ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in lovely four-part harmony at times. It’s a verbatim life-telling project converted into a kind of people’s opera.

And you hear about all the little triumphs and tragedies of a western childhood; the friends who had more toys than you did; the friend’s father who you witnessed bullying the friend’s mother when you went for sleep-over; the aunts you liked and the ones you didn’t like; the time you wet your pants in primary school because the mean teacher wouldn’t let you go to the toilet. Sometimes the music mirrors the text, so for example when one character talks about the groovy clothes her friend’s mum wore, the music suddenly gets all groovy, and when there’s a drama like the pants-wetting, the music becomes very (melo)dramatic. Mostly, though, it consists of very simple melodies sung in a very simple way, at times almost as if the performers are speaking on pitch rather than singing with trained voices.

So is this show a celebration of the ordinary? A privileging of the vernacular? Ordinary lives, ordinary language, ordinary-looking people, ordinary performances, rather than highly skilled ones (they dance but they’re not highly trained dancers, although they all seem to be good actors, and most of them are multi-skilled musicians).

At times it is actually very moving, in that you could really feel the way those childhood disappointments had stayed with people and helped to make them the adults they’d become. At other times it’s just totally hilarious and the whole audience was laughing.

The show I saw on Tuesday night was just the first part but there are three more parts – more stories as the interviewees grow older – and on the weekend you can go and see all four parts in the one day and night if you choose. I decided after the first show I wouldn’t want to see all four in a row. I loved so much of this show but I thought, at three and quarter hours, the first one was too long and it would have been better to lose an hour’s worth of material to tighten it up.

The company is named after an imaginary theatre company in an unfinished novel by Kafka and the founders say they’re influenced by artists such as Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, the artists who used items of the everyday for their art. I suspect we’ll see elements of their work filtering through the Melbourne theatre scene in the next few years. The project felt very fresh and in some ways very innovative.

‘Life and Times – the full four part marathon – is on this Saturday October 26th at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre.

‘The Shadow King’ is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Michael Kantor at The Malthouse Theatre. This project has been a long time in the making – four years, according to the director – and it began from a conversation between Michael Kantor (former Malthouse Theatre Artistic Director) and indigenous actor Tom E Lewis (star of the classic Australian film ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’) when they talked about the common themes of land ownership and dispossession in King Lear and within indigenous communities. Lear is also a play about jealousy and greed, money and bad family business, all of which often come into play in the debates within indigenous communities over land ownership, according to Tom E. Lewis.

The project became very much a collaborative venture between Kantor, Lewis (who plays Lear) and the rest of the indigenous cast. Together they re-wrote the script, using some original text but translating (or re-writing) much of it into an indigenous Kriol spoken in the NT. It’s close enough to modern-day English that we can understand it all, but still distinctly different, much like Shakespeare’s English. In the original plot, as we know, the ageing King Lear decides to give away all his land and wealth to two of his three daughters and then it all goes pear-shaped. The Shadow King team have changed elements of the plot in significant ways. For example the bad guy, the ‘illegitimate’ Edmund (played by Jimi Bani), is trying to seduce both of Lear’s ‘bad’ sisters, one of whom is a single mum with about five children.

There is so much to like about this production, including wonderful performances by most of the cast members. Jimi Bani (who played Eddie Mabo in the TV adaptation of the Mabo story) is riveting as the seductive, physically-threatening bad guy Edmund. The three women who play Lear’s daughters (Rariwuy Hick, Jada Albert, Natasha Wanganeen) are all confident, subtle performers. And Tom E Lewis is a charismatic actor who easily engages and holds your attention every time he’s on stage. The use of Kriol language is an important and respectful gesture of reclaiming indigenous culture and although it takes your ears a little while to adjust, as it does with Shakespearean English, most of the time it works.

The set consists of a red earth floor at the front of the stage and a huge rotating contraption at the rear that the actors move around on. At times it becomes a giant mining earth-mover, at other times a jail, or the front of a house. Projections of grainy film footage taken on indigenous communities (Murray Lui, Natasha Gadd, Rhys Graham) often form the backdrop to the set, complete with skinny dogs and people wandering around, so it looks like the characters in the play are moving in and out of houses in actual communities. At times this production reminded of a production called ‘Jandamarra’ which I saw in WA a few years ago (starring Jimi Bani) which also involved years of respectful consultation with the indigenous community and an ambitious cross-cultural project.

For me, though, the individual elements in The Shadow King didn’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole. The movements of the big set contraption were unwieldy at times, and it was physically awkward for the performers to jump up and down from. At times the grinding sound of movable bits of the set interrupted the emotional mood of a scene. Kantor has used a live band who perform on the side of the stage, featuring indigenous rock veteran Bart Willoughby, and every now and then King Lear sings a relatively well known indigenous pop song. There are some by Jimmy Chi, for example, who wrote ‘Bran Nue Dae’, and some of Bart’s hits from ‘No Fixed Address’ days, but the familiar songs seem out of place in this Otherworld that’s been created, dragging us back into the prosaic everyday.

At times the choices made in mixing the occasional slabs of text from Shakespeare’s King Lear with the newly-inserted original Kriol material seem to have no internal logic, so it can be a bit jarring. It might have been more effective to have completely abandoned Shakespeare’s text (and possibly the characters’ names) and just gone with a wholesale re-write of the original.

Lear’s slow descent into madness didn’t quite work for me either. Tom E. Lewis went too far, too fast in portraying that chaos, so he was limited in where he could go with it after a while, and seemed to stay on the same emotional plane. It’s such a complex journey Lear takes as his world disintegrates around him, and it’s primarily a director’s job to shape that journey for the actor, and therefore for the audience. I wasn’t really moved by Lear’s plight until the very end when the ‘good’ daughter Cordelia dies in his arms. At times, it felt like there were too many cooks, or too many cultural and political agendas being served, or (dare I say it) too much goodwill, and not enough hard-nosed decision-making from the creative team, leading to an (in some ways) ground-breaking production, but not an awe-inspiring one. In short, a bit of a missed opportunity.

‘The Shadow King’ is on at The Malthouse Theatre until Sunday October 27.

‘Teenage Riot’ and ‘All that is Wrong’ are the first and second parts of a trilogy of works from Belgian theatremakers Ontroerend Goed, performed in the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre. This company specialises in working with teenagers, and the director and writer Alexander Devriendt seems to have a very good grasp of the kind of world western teenagers are living in right now; a world of constant digital communication, of compulsive selfies, of frequent exposure to adult sexual behaviour, of limited privacy and of disturbing levels of self-harm. And all of this material emerges during these two shows.

The first show, ‘Teenage Riot’, is mostly performed inside a small box-like room that sits on stage. Inside the room is a group of teenagers, one of whom has a camera that is relaying images to the audience via projections onto the outside of the box. So there’s a claustrophobic feel to this show from the beginning. There are intense close-ups of those young faces and some puppetry involving small objects inside the box, including some very disturbing scenes in which a small girl is being sexually preyed upon by an adult man. At times the performers come outside the box and sit on top of it, talking about how to stay thin – or actually how to starve themselves – they or stand with their backs to us, talking into the camera’s lens, confessing their fears.

So there’s a very interesting and unpredictable use of space and technology in this show that in some ways mimics how teenagers move in and out of public and private spaces, trying to separate themselves from adults and create their own worlds. There are references to cutting, graphic depictions of teen sexuality, and of the bullying and exclusion of some kids, there are conversations between parents overheard by teens, and often the camera stays in close on those anxious young faces as the teens react to this stuff. We’re reminded of the vulnerability and the knowingness that exist simultaneously in teenagers. I found this show quite hard to watch but in the end incredibly moving.

I had a similar reaction to the second Ontroerend Goed show that was performed later in the week. All That Is Wrong involves two performers, but it’s almost a ‘one-girl’ show. It is written and performed by an 18 year old actor called Anna Ryckwaert and directed once again by Alexander Devriendt. Anna spends just over an hour telling us all about herself, not by speaking, but by using simple words and phrases that she writes on a giant blackboard in white chalk. She starts simply with her age, her family members, a bit about what she likes and doesn’t like, and very gradually it builds up to a huge sprawling list of all the things she believes in and all the things she thinks are wrong with the world – like hunger, poverty, war, guns, Starbucks, terrorism, climate change – you name it, practicallyeverything that all of us have ever worried about goes onto this blackboard. Sometimes the words are rubbed out or moved around, with the help of her assistant, a young man called Zach.

So it becomes a textual redaction of the contents of her young mind. The show draws on the aesthetics of graffiti, of advertising signage, of social media and of protest signs, and even though we hardly hear her spoken voice, we get a real sense of this young woman’s ‘voice’ through her writing. We also get a strong sense of how overwhelming these ‘wrong things’ are for young people (I vivdly remember that feeling myself) but there is an almost positive ending with Anna’s final message to us – and to her future self – ‘I Will Write’.

In some ways this production is not hugely engaging as theatre, in fact it is more like performance art in many ways, so at time I found myself wanting something to ‘happen’. But still, by the end I was very moved and have been thinking about it ever since. Anne presents each member of the audience with a photocopied photo of the writing on her blackboard at the end to take away with us. I have stuck it on my wall as a reminder.