Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews August 15th [August 16]

Mein Kampf’ is a play that opened at La Mama theatre in Carlton last week. I have to admit that when I saw the title of this production, I quailed a little, given that this is also the title of Adolf Hitler’s deeply anti-Semitic autobiography. Of course it literally just means ‘My Struggle’ in German, and as it turned out, Hitler is one of the main characters in this comedy.

The play was written in 1987 by a Jewish Hungarian playwright called George Tabori. and apparently it’s partly autobiographical. It’s also a farce and mostly complete fantasy. Some important background information here is that Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz, and one of the questions I thought about as I watched this play was – how different might my response have been if I didn’t have that background information, or if Tabori wasn’t Jewish? (By the way a Hungarian friend of mine tells me ‘tabor’ means ‘camp’ in Hungarian and ‘tabori’ means ‘from the camp’)

The play did very well when it was first produced in Vienna in 1987. Remember that at this time an ex-Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, had just been elected Austrian President so an interesting context for a story like to appear. In 2011 it was also made into a film, which had mixed reviews.

So the plot in brief: an old Jewish man called Schlomo Herzl is living in poverty in Vienna some time early in the 20th century, trying to write his autobiography, which he calls ‘Mein Kampf’ – my struggle. Schlomo is sharing a room in his boarding house with someone who may or may not be God, a character named Lobkowitz, who insists on being called Boss. One day a belligerent young man enters their home, and it’s Hitler, come to Vienna to try to get into art school. Schlomo Herzel, who is above all a kind man, takes young Hitler under his wing and tries to help him. He feeds and clothes him and supports him through his many moments of rage and paranoia and hypochondria. He trims Hitler’s moustache and combs his hair and in spite of the worst behaviour from this young man, Schlomo keeps believing he can bring out the best in him if he just keeps applying kindness.

Meanwhile there’s a beautiful young Austrian woman called Gretchen who seems to be in love with old Schlomo. When she visits him she strips naked and wanders around his dingy basement home holding a pet chicken. At some point a glamorous women all dressed in black called Frau Death knocks on the door and says she’s come for Hitler. Schlomo distracts her while Hitler’s on the toilet and sends her away, to protect Hitler. If this was a pantomime, of course, we’d all be yelling ‘he’s over there!’

So the whole story is absurd but underlying the manic dialogue and the fast-paced comedy is deep tragedy. Perhaps there’s a question being posed here about whether it was human naivety that allowed Hitler to get as far as he did with his diabolical plans.

The production has had excellent direction by Beng Oh and there are some really strong performances in this production. It’s broad physical comedy, with lots of visual gags, everyone just goes for it. Mark Wilson plays Shlomo and is quite convincing as an old Jewish guy, and you almost fall in love with this Zelig character. (Shlomo claims to have been present at a whole lot of memorable historical moments but actually he’s a fabricator, a fabulist, and a poet – at one point he says ‘ the purpose of poetry is to chat up death and stall for time’). Glen Van Oosterom as Hitler is both very funny and deeply unlikeable, as he should be. Hitler’s megalomania comes out in this version of the character when he says he ‘wants the world be flat, not round, so he can push people off the edges’.

But this play won’t be for everyone. The dialogue is hilarious but relentless, there’s plenty of toilet humour and some full frontal nudity, and towards the end of the play there’s a scene involving the slow disembowelling of a dead chicken (or maybe it’s a turkey) which is a chilling visual reminder of the clinical way the Nazis disposed of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. It will turn your stomach, as it should.

But if you’re up for it, go and see ‘Mein Kampf.’ It’s on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until August 25th

I’ve also been to see, Prompter, a new theatre production that’s part of the Arts House (North Melbourne) 2013 program.

I went along to this show with high hopes because theoretically it was right up my alley – a play billed as being about the media, the impact of technology and digital media on story-telling and politics – all the stuff journalists deal with on a daily basis. I’d have to say, though, I was disappointed.

This production was co-written by Sam Fox and Patrick Pittman, directed by Sam Fox, and produced by a Perth-based company called Hydra Poesis. It’s certainly ambitious, involving multi-lingual actors, live dance performances, hand-held cameras simultaneously broadcasting performers in the space, and other performers beamed in via the internet from locations all around the world. There are giant screens and small screens and smoke effects and sound effects, all contained within the cavernous echoing space of the Meat Market.

The ‘plot’: a reporter is apparently doing a live cross from a small island in the South Pacific called San Supice (I think), where something terrible is happening but the reporter is not quite sure what. People are fleeing their homes, there’s been some kind of natural disaster or political drama, and this freelance reporter, Charles Boyd (played by Brendan Ewing) is trying to cover the situation with very limited information, so the story keeps changing. What he’s describing could be something like the earthquake in Haiti or the invasion of East Timor, with people fleeing in terror and becoming instant refugees in their own country.

A little later we’re introduced to another character, a woman who has gone to St Supice to try and help out after the ‘disaster’. She’s an aid worker who’s being grilled by another journo about her motivations for being there. So there’s an interesting debate here about the purpose and the effect of the intervention of first world aid workers in these kinds of situations, about and the choices they make when they leave their loved ones behind. There are questions raised about empathy and desensitisation to tragedy, and if this play is about storytelling, then there are potentially a couple of very interesting story-lines there.

The problem is, the stories get buried under all the other busy business that’s going on. The dance performances didn’t seeme to add very much to the whole, and the monologues beamed in via the internet are very hard to hear in that echoing space. In fact sound is a big problem with this production in general in this space, and I was left thinking, how much time was spent considering the audience in putting this show together?

I don’t mean that it should be made easy or comfortable for us, but I think there was some dramaturgy missing that could cut back on the busy business with technology and make sure there is more clarity in what is being attempted here. The company clearly wants to challenge the traditional relationship between performers and audience, and in the program notes they talk about the play beginning from the idea of ‘alienation’, so perhaps they wanted us to feel confused and disoriented and discomforted. I’m not sure they intend to alienate the audience quite as much as they actually do.

Brendan Ewing is very good as the journo Charles Boyd. His ‘fixer’ (the local journo who helps him find out what’s going on on St Supice) is played by French actor Jule Japhet Chiari and her character was convincing but her voice as so soft that we missed many of her lines. In the end, it felt like a long hour and half at the theatre.

There is material online about the production if you want to find out more about it –

Prompter is on at the Meat Market in North Melbourne until August 18th

Couple of Festival previews for you: the Melbourne Fringe Festival program is out and the Festival runs from September 18th to October 6th. With 3400 artists performing comedy, theatre, circus and cabaret in more than 100 venues, it could be a nightmare trying to decide what to see.

So here are a few tips to get you started :

– A musical comedy show called ‘The Beyond with Leslie Squid’ about a psychic, on at the Frringe Hub upstairs at Errols’ in Errol St North Melbourne. I’ve read some screenplay material by the co-writer and director of this show, Stayci Taylor, and she is VERY FUNNY.

– A new Chambermade Opera production of an opera for solo voice about the experience of flying called ‘Turbulence’. This is one of the company’s ongoing living room operas and it will literally be performed in the living room of someone’s apartment. ‘Turbulence’ features virtuosos soprano Deborah Kayser and will challenge your preconceptions about what is ‘opera’.

– A ‘radical reinterpretation’ of Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ by Van Badham, who recently adapted Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for the Malthouse Theatre. This show, called ‘How It Is, or As You Like It’ is on at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton.

– A comedy show called ‘Come Heckle Christ’ which (I’m pretty sure) is by the winner of last year’s Best Comedy Award at the Melbourne Fringe, Josh Ladgrove. It’s an improvised performance where you get to ask Jesus Christ all those questions you’ve always wanted to, but never had the chance. ‘Come Heckle Christ’ will be on at the Imperial Hotel.

And the 2013 [Melbourne International Arts Festival]( program has just been launched. The Festival runs from October 11th to October 27th and here’s what I reckon looks good:

– Into the Bloodstream, a new show from singer/songwriter Archie Roach at the Arts Centre. This show is an autobiographical presentation of Archei’s work directed by Rachel Maza from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre and will feature a huge number of other fantastic musicians and performers as special guests.

– Singer/songewriter Gurrumul Yunupingu will be performing in the Myer Music Bowl with the Philharmonia Australia orchestra for one night only. If you haven’t yet seen him performing live, do.

– French pianists and sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque are performing a program of Debussy, Ravel and Bernstein at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

– The highly-regarded local theatre company the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble is doing a production called ‘M and M’, based on Bulgakov’s classic story ‘The Master and Margarita’ at Theatreworks in St Kilda.

– The Hofesh Schecter Company from the UK is returning for their third Festival. Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Schecter has a world premiere work in the program called ‘Sun’ at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre.

– There’s a new play by Eddie Perfect for the Melbourne Theatre Company called ‘The Beast’. Eddie was last seen on stage playing Shane Warne in his musical about the hapless cricketer. ‘The Beast’ is apparently about a bunch of tree-changers confronted with the task of killing a cow.

– There is a Kids Weekend on October 19th and 20th with theatre, puppetry, music, a book market, kids flicks, a pop-up veggie space all targeted at children of various ages.