Boldly narrowing the gap

Kathryn Kelly: Brisbane Festival

Prize Fighter, La Boite Theatre, Brisbane Festival

Prize Fighter, La Boite Theatre, Brisbane Festival

Prize Fighter, La Boite Theatre, Brisbane Festival

This year’s Brisbane Festival was carefully shaped by brave programming and warm place-making, where even the large public festival spaces like Arcadia and the Theatre Republic felt like private house parties rather than public way stations. The dance between popular and worthy has always been a difficult one for the festival and incoming Artistic Director David Berthold seemed acutely aware of this, stating on his blog, Carving in Snow, soon after his appointment that “the gap between what artists want to make and what audiences want to see is now wider than I’ve ever known it.”

Yet the unflinchingly radical message about the violence perpetrated on the bodies of black men in America produced the most heavily promoted image of the festival advertising—two young Afro-American men, in hoods, circling each other, their bodies contorted into impossible extensions. As well, the cabaret Coup Fatal—where Congolese artists worked with Belgian choreographer Alain Platel to explore intractably difficult political and cultural issues in the Congo—threw off any pallor of worthiness with exuberant virtuosity. This was one of the magic tricks that Berthold managed in his tenure at LaBoite: selecting work that might on paper appear too edgy for conservative Brisbane audiences but that attracted them nonetheless through sheer energy and visual impact.

Ditto with the local work, including the saucy, politically punchy all brown ladies cabaret Hot Brown Honey at the Judith Wright Centre, and the two most commented on local works in this year’s festival: La Boite’s Prize Fighter—the debut of Congolese-Australian Future D Fidel—and the Queensland Theatre Company’s The Seagull adapted from Chekhov and written and directed by Brisbane wunderkind Daniel Evans.

Prize Fighter

Prize Fighter was the most anticipated show of the year from the moment of its announcement by former Artistic Director of LaBoite, Chris Kohn, who is most responsible for its incubation. The conceit of the show as an actual boxing match in real time was a powerful one and demonstrates Fidel’s strong instincts as a playwright. The match was flawlessly brought to life in production by deft direction from Todd MacDonald, elegant design by Bill Haycock and technical wizardry by lighting designer David Walters.

What was also extraordinary about the work was its showcasing of the breadth of African-Australian talent in this country with local performers Pacharo and Gideon Mzembe matched by recent NIDA graduate Thuso Lekwape and veteran American-Australian performer Kenneth Ransom. The opening night felt genuinely significant, evoking descriptions of the first night of Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s Seven Stages of Grieving at Metro Arts in the 1990s. For me, Prize Fighter felt not quite finished. Despite the obvious talent of the playwright, some of the writing seemed sketchy and the deeper ideas of redemption and trauma had not quite integrated the pivotal relationship in the work, that between the feisty trainer played by the redoubtable Margi Brown Ash and the doggedly heroic boxer trying to knit together a psyche torn apart by experiences of true horror. When the show tours, which it must, I have no doubt there will be time to deepen and integrate what is an important new work in the canon.

The Seagull

In direct contrast to the raw and stripped back Prize Fighter was Daniel Evans’ adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, which played out in a hoarder’s paradise—a set full of domestic detritus where stage manager Daniel Sinclair pottered around, moving pieces of the set and organising the quotes from Chekhov projected regularly onto the side wall of the Bille Brown Studio. I am not a Chekhov devotee, so although familiar with the story I came to Evans’ adaptation with relatively naïve eyes.

This is one of the most talented casts assembled in local memory but it was Brian Lucas’ performance as the mischievous and delusional dementia patient Soren that was at the heart of the adaptation. He spent the second half of the piece clutching the seagull shot by Trigorin. It was embalmed and spoke to him alone in the voice of Chekhov.

Lucas’ embodied and melancholic performance signalled what might have been for this work with more time and without the punishing dual role of writer/director. Evans’ previous adaptation for QTC, Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was brave and wild, but exactingly disciplined in form and structure and displayed his longstanding preoccupation with Australian suburbia, a great leitmotif of Australian performance. The Seagull, for all of its self conscious disdain of Chekhovian mannerisms as boring and its meta-theatrical referencing of the tired controversies around adaptation, still faithfully adhered to all of the major story arcs and themes of the original.

This left those in the audience attached to the original in a real conundrum: if as a writer you literally excise Chekhov and try to fit your thoughts about art and life back into a Chekhovian shaped hole, you offer yourself up for direct comparison. While there was all of Evans’ vivisectional, generationally savvy, observational humour and flashes of sly brilliance, so much of it felt, well, petty. Yet in those sequences with Soren you felt the tingle of what could have been from one of Brisbane’s most daring and talented writers.

Theatre Republic

Across the river at Theatre Republic, the venue beautifully designed by Sarah Winter and program curated by La Boite Creative Producer Glyn Davies, it was business as usual with a mix of independent work from around the country. This included Attica Erratica’s disturbing reboot of the biblical story of Lot, The City They Burned, and the effortlessly charming political satire Richard II by Mark Wilson for MKA, another adaptation, but one that takes a range of Shakespeare’s history plays to pillory the current bloody federal political landscape. The loose brilliance of Wilson’s renditions of Shakespeare’s text scattered through the work was bettered only by his ability to rant: my favourite his tribute to Paul Keating. The fake golden velveteen of the set was gorgeous and the crisp by-play with Gillard cipher Olivia Monticciolo delicious, though the currency of the show did suffer from a climax tied to the rise of the then freshly deposed Tony Abbott.

Experimenta Recharge

Just adjacent to the Theatre Republic was one of the gems of the festival: Experimenta Recharge: 6th International Biennial of Media Art, with a dizzying range of visually beautiful and politically witty media art. While many of the pieces invited a traditional gaze—framed on walls or mounted in installation—their lurid colours disguised a slightly askew technological formalism that gave them an eerie depth. My undisputed favourite was a technicolour panaroma by Japanese collective TeamLab, 100 years sea, that rolls out animated verdant green islands across a pulsating aquamarine sea and changes subtly as it literally maps sea levels rising, minute by minute.

The last word though must go to the evangelically mesmerising American theatre director Peter Sellars. He suggested that there is a crisis of imagination in contemporary culture that only artists can solve by providing new models for work and collaboration. He ended his talk with a final provocation, urging the beleagured Australian arts sector to find solidarity and comfort with other communities straining under the weight of poverty and shrinking funding. In fact he claimed that it may well be in the work that we are now forced to do outside of our own art that we will find the fuel to create new approaches that could eventually change the world.

Brisbane Festival: La Boite, Prize Fighter, Roundhouse, 5-26 Sept; QTC, The Seagull, Bille Brown Studio, 29 Aug-26 Sept; Theatre Republic: MKA Theatre of New Writing, Richard II, The Loft, QUT, 22-26 Sept; Experimenta Recharge, The Block, Creative Industries Precinct, QUT, 8-26 Sept; Brisbane Festival, 5-26 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 38

© Kathryn Kelly; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015