Perspective on power and perception

Keith Gallasch at moving and challenging performances

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/1/188_kg_lyandavert2.jpg" alt="Gibson Nolte, Ben Winspear
Now that Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty!, “>

Gibson Nolte, Ben Winspear
Now that Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty!,

Gibson Nolte, Ben Winspear
Now that Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty!,

Honour Bound

Thanks to a bold piece of commissioning by the Sydney Opera House (for its Adventures in the Dark program) and Melbourne’s Malthouse, director Nigel Jamieson has been able to realise a powerfully immersive account of the agonies of unlawful incarceration and its impact on others. Honour Bound is structured not around a narrative—we all know the appalling story—but a series of propositions for and against human rights, onscreen interviews with David Hicks’ family, and a grim dance of internment and torture. Garry Stewart’s choreography wisely eschews dancerliness: nothing detracts from the intensity of physical feeling and compulsory abjection which becomes the totality of the tortured body. The immersiveness is realised in a number of highly effective ways; the helicopter lights that swing out over the audience; the frightening wrap-around sound (at other times delicately Middle-Eastern); the set which is both prison and screen—the real becomes virtual; massive shifts in scale; a nightmarish prison within a prison; and in the merging of text and action as Brendan Shelper tumbles in a vertigo inducing outer space where the charter of human rights, not stars, rolls out and from which he is ever and unjustly deflected. Our point of view, visually and aurally is constantly repositioned, the performers are prisoners one moment, guards the next, the text tumbles us from war-maker rhetoric to the story of a life, to parental anxiety, to the horrendous details of psychological torture. The performers’ bodies grow increasingly discombobulated, as if they’ve lost their centre of gravity until they are weighed down, the anger that once flung them against prison wire drained away. Honour Bound is no apologia for David Hicks’ actions but a viscerally intelligent argument for justice. Post-show on the evening I saw the show, Major Michael Mori addressed a full house, eloquently turning questions about US injustice back onto Australians for their government’s complicity in accepting treatment of one of its citizens that the USA would never allow for its own.

A return season of Version 1.0’s The Wages of Spin, prior to its Mobile States tour, was a welcome and timely complement to Honour Bound. In an improved version with a more potent and inexorable logic, Spin maintains its television studio hothouse of political rhetoric and media nonsense but with a stronger and more central focus on government and, by implication, media and public refusal to take responsibility for the deaths of a massive number of Iraqi civilians in a war that was supposed to liberate them.


Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels Empty!

Post Berlin Wall, the old Marxian dialectic spirals out of control as a post-Godot duo (rock muso and some kind of intellectual) seek solidity where once upon a time Western values had been sustained by political opposition and xenophobic hatred. With his third Foreman work in recent years, director-composer (and presumably designer) Max Lyandvert continues his mission to bring the master of American installation theatre to needy Australian theatregoers. Although lacking the design verve of his hero (ie the requisite budget), Lyandvert and his performers do the old man proud in this tautly crafted and superbly acted (and skilfully designed) production. As ever, Foreman’s wit and wisdom are densely and gnomically articulated and it’s therefore wise to let some of it wash over you, pick up on the recurrent riffs and chew the whole thing over later. The female role is thankless—a generous interpretation would suggest an evocation of the plight of the women of the old Soviet Block transformed into the sex toys of the West. Big ideals and their contingent propaganda crash while sex and bodily functions are writ grossly large in this new world where there are still voices in our heads, but instead of spouting spurious ideals, they intone “All dogs are dead” and “There will be no paradise on Earth, my friend.” No wonder one of the characters insists, “I don’t wan’t to know the end of the story.”


Mixed Double: Rosie Denis, Martin del Amo

In Access All Areas, Rosie Denis continues to develop an engrossingly unique body-as-text performance language, signalling to us furiously with hyperventilatory, cadenced stuttering and obsessive gesturing, relieved from time to time by the long hiss of inhaled air. At times she’s like a human Max Headroom and as funny (the photocopier and phone riffs), at other times she’s deeply affecting, folding deeply into herself or powerlessly looped—a kind of aetheticised Tourette’s Sydnrome. And all this about everyday losses and anxieties. On the same bill is Can’t Hardly Breathe, the third part of Martin del Amo’s trilogy (the other 2 are Unsealed [2004] and Under Attack [2005]) gravitating around the loss of a friend’s life and the doubts about one’s own, as self, as artist. As before, moments of physical intensity—urgent moves, near falls, sudden reachings—emerge, even erupt, from del Amo’s subtle presence, his gently told part-narratives and the walked mapping of the performance space. In this work it’s the dancer’s relationship with the ocean (to which he lost his friend) that dominates, a fascination with water, its power to extinguish the fire he greatly fears, yielding movement that suggests the body beautifully engaging with and shaped by the sea. Gail Priest’s accompany score builds in oceanic intensity and detail as the sea sends waves through and tosses the dancer’s body, confirming the disturbing play of voluntary and involuntary movement in all 3 works. While not as structurally satisfying as its predecessors, Can’t Hardly Breathe is nonetheless memorable. The desire to see all 3 works on the same program is unlikely to be met given the demands on the performer of just one of them—a pity, so let’s hope they’ve been seriously documented.


The Hanging of Jean Lee

This is chilling and exhilarating music theatre from the composer-director of Dreaming Transportation. That show was a rich and lively account of women early in the 19th century meeting the challenges of landscape and class. This one is about Jean Lee, in 1951 the last woman in Australia hanged and possibly wrongly charged for murder. Constructed as a song cycle rather than overtly through-composed music theatre, The Hanging of Jean Lee comprises wonderful songs in a distinctive Greenwell semi-pop/rock idiom that for the most part stay away from 50s period feel (that’s left to projections and costuming). Although beset with cast illness and the composer-creator’s absence (in hospital awaiting the birth of son Gabriel Joseph), director Tim Maddocks, designer Dan Potra (a huge sweep of canvas covered stairs and screen impressively evokes the courthouse steps we see Lee climbing in the well known press photo), last-minute musical director Tom O’Halloran and a fine cast of singers (Max Sharam, Jeff Duff, Josh Quong Tart, Hugo Race) with no shortage of acting skill all contributed to the production’s dramatic cohesion and intensity. Filmmaker Janet Merewether collaborated with Greenwell to create the images taken from Lee’s life and across the period, morphing and gliding across the large screen. Black and white film reconstruction of the events leading up to the killing and the subsequent image of the victim’s body provide another disturbing dimension. Lee’s life was a mess. An apparently intelligent child, she “reside[d] a lot in her head”, wrote a teacher, and later made fatal choices of male partners. Lee fascinatingly combines the roles of agent and victim. Greewell and Sharam don’t sentimentalise a tough and irresponsible life. The songs similarly range from hard edged to poignant, and Jordie Albiston’s spare imagistic poems make for fine song lyrics in Abe Pogos’ scripting. The Hanging of Jean Lee is powerful music theatre. With a little tweaking, addressing the silences between songs and making some concession to the musical model (please, let’s hear more of those tunes and motifs), The Hanging of Jean Lee deserves to be widely seen, not least for the calibre of its performers and for its multimedia realisation but especially for its powerful challenge to capital punishment at the very moment when some Australians and their government entertain it once again—if not in their own country, but happily elsewhere!


Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung

Although atypical of Edward Albee’s output, Box… is a fascinating if demanding theatrical experiment from 1968. Like Richard Foreman, who’s made an art of the form, Box… is theatre as installation. Ropes thread through and frame a space in which hangs a large box, our perspective on it shifted by subtle changes in lighting. We hear heavy breathing, we hear a voice, seagulls, bells, words that are hard to place but which accumulate meaning through repetition: “When art begins to hurt it’s time to look around”, “All arts are now craft”, “Progress is merely a direction.” While the voice remains disembodied and constantly provocative about art, its limits and life, 4 characters occupy the stage, looking like they’re on holiday—Chairman Mao, a charming but increasingly ruthless ideologue; a middle-aged woman grappling with the death of her husband and her own psychological and physical precariousness; a folksy woman reciting a folksy poem of female victimhood; and a silent man, who appears to simply listen. The sense of fall and demise grows, for the woman, for paper tigers, for all capitalism (Mao: “If you don’t hit it, it won’t fall”). There are tendernesses and reservations—the woman says of her husband who, once he thought about death at the age of 39, became consumed by it: “His scrotum was large…his penis not surpising, but always there and ample”, “There is only life and dying … I was dying long before he did … what about me?” Director Kevin Jackson elicits superb performances from Elaine Hudson, with her measured and highly nuanced mezzo delivery, and Jane Harders who delivers the voice of the box from offstage with an eerie lyricism. More a curio than a great play, Box is nonetheless interesting as evidence of Albee’s engagement with 1968, even if nowadays one can imagine a better play with just the central woman and the voice of the box.

Honour Bound, conception, direction, design Nigel Jamieson, choreography Garry Stewart, performers DJ Garner, Alexandra Harrison, David Mueller, Marnie Palomare, Brendan Shelper, Paul White, composer, sound designer Paul Charlier, lighting Damien Cooper, video artist Scott Otto Anderson; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, July 28-Sept 3; Version 1.0,The Wages of Spin, Performance Space, Sydney, Aug 9-19

Richard Foreman, Now That Communism Is Dead My Life Feels Empty!,director-composer Max Lyandvert, performers Ben Winspear, Gibson Nolte, Rebecca Smee, lighting Luiz Pamolha, A Kitchen Sink Production, Belvoir B Sharp, Seymour Centre Downstairs, Sydney, July 13-30

Mixed Double, Rosie Dennis, Access All Areas, Martin del Amo, Can’t Hardly Breathe, sound designer Gail Priest, lighting Clytie Smith; Performance Space, Sydney, July 20-22

The Hanging of Jean Lee, composer, artistic director, image director Andree Greenwell, director Timothy Maddock, script Jordie Albiston, Abe Pogos, designer Dan Potra, lighting Tony Youlden, musical director Tom O’Halloran, producer Anna Messariti; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Aug 2-6

Edward Albee, Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, director Kevin Jackson, performers Elaine Hudson, Jane Harders, John Grinston, Rick Lau, Genevieve Mooy, set Hamish Peter, lighting Luiz Pampohla, sound Peter Neville, Cumulus Productions; Parade Studio, NIDA, Sydney, Aug 10-Sept 9

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 42

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006