re-charge: continuity & evolution

john bailey: hayloft project, melbourne workers’ theatre, circus oz

The Nest, Hayloft Project

The Nest, Hayloft Project

IF NIETZSCHE GOT IT RIGHT, AND HUMANS ARE LESS STATIC BEINGS THAN INCONSTANT BECOMINGS, THEN SURELY THE SAME CAN BE SAID OF THE INSTITUTIONS WE CREATE. CERTAINLY, THE MUCH-DISCUSSED “CHANGING OF THE GUARD” IN AUSTRALIA’S MAJOR ARTS ORGANISATIONS HAS MANY THEATRE PUNDITS PONDERING WHETHER THESE COMPANIES WILL BE PUSHED TO REINVENT THEMSELVES AS A RESULT, OR WHETHER IT’LL BE BUSINESS AS USUAL WITH A NEW BRAND IMAGE. LOOKING AT THE SMALLER GROUPS MAKING WORK IN MELBOURNE TODAY, HOWEVER, WHAT’S MORE EVIDENT IS HOW THE NATURE OF SUCH ARTISTIC ENTITIES IS ALWAYS A NEGOTIATION BETWEEN AN ENDURING IDENTITY AND A FIELD OF POSSIBILITY.

the nest

The Hayloft Project has remained one of the most exciting companies in Australia for several years, but focusing on the through-lines that connect each Hayloft production can distract from the impressive imaginative diversity it has also offered. Its final production for 2010 was The Nest, and while the production furthered the company’s interest in classic (especially Russian) texts adapted for a contemporary world, it was also a significant departure from what’s gone before.

Firstly, it saw Artistic Director Simon Stone hand over the reins. While Hayloft productions are almost always helmed by Stone as director, he has also allowed others to create their own works under the company aegis without overt artistic intrusion from its founder. 2009’s Yuri Wells was a hugely successful experiment in this vein, and that show’s creators also form the creative core of The Nest.

Taking as their source Maxim Gorky’s The Philistines, Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks have developed a wonderful script that seems utterly of our time. As with Yuri Wells, Sarks again directs and Hardie performs, with a sizeable and accomplished cast making up a strong ensemble. Performed in the round (or, rather, square), Sarks displays a terrific command of pace, shifting quickly from scenes of crowded chaos to tiny, intimate moments of solitude or suspense. Despite the relatively brief running time—around 90 minutes—the sense of an expansive and credible world is quickly established, and something of the sweeping historical consciousness which often infuses Russian playwriting is maintained here.

But where productions of Gorky (or Chekhov for that matter) walk an uneasy line between historical specificity and more universal relevance, how would you know that The Nest hadn’t been written from scratch yesterday if you hadn’t already been told? The only thing that really reminds us of its origins is that oh-so-Russian habit of having countless characters turn up unannounced. Even this slightly anachronistic theatrical convention is knowingly laughed at after the production concludes and the theme songs from various sit-coms are played (sit-coms, of course, being the only place where it’s still acceptable for a constant stream of acquaintances to invade the house at all hours).

I’ve no doubt that in different hands—Stone’s, for instance—The Nest would have been a very different beast. But its inclusion within the Hayloft’s broader output only expands the company’s creative reach, making it home to a multiplicity of voices rather than a single, unitary directive. It’s all the better for it.

Georgina Naidu, Greg Ulfan Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, Melbourne Workers Theatre

Georgina Naidu, Greg Ulfan Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, Melbourne Workers Theatre

yet to ascertain the nature of the crime

Melbourne Workers Theatre, conversely, has had many esteemed directors across the decades, but is now undergoing a radical reinvention. Its last production, Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, hinted at the plans new director Gorkem Acaroglu has for recreating the company as one solely dedicated to documentary theatre, as well as a more general shift away from creating works based primarily around class concerns towards addressing a wider variety of contemporary social issues.

Yet to Ascertain…spoke to this new brief with outstanding clarity, incorporating questions of class and work but also closely scrutinising the realities of race relations in Australia today. It was developed from a range of verbatim sources including interviews, journalistic articles, official reports and first-person narratives. Three performers re-enacted these exchanges in a variety of theatrical styles, from frankly silly Bollywood dances to skit-comedy routines to sincere and moving monologues. Though patchy in tone, the collective weight of the production was considerable, and a lengthy final sequence in which a taxi driver is attacked by racist passengers before his own cab-driving community comes to his rescue is simply breathtaking theatre.

Though largely played in somewhat exaggerated, consciously theatrical ways, the various narratives produced here were of an intricate and provocative nature. Many circled around the experiences of Indian students and immigrants in Melbourne, including the real incidents of racially-motivated violence which have made international headlines as well as more engendered and institutionalised forms of discrimination. There are layers of irony to many of the word-for-word recountings of victims themselves, including denials that Australia is home to racism, as well as the police statements which are the basis for the show’s title. At the same time, contrary viewpoints which complicate the notion of racism as an ‘us vs them’ binary add to the overall challenge—and lack of easy answers—which the show presents to its audience. It’s a pity Yet to Ascertain…had such a short season, but it’s certainly an inspiring beginning for the company’s next stage of development.

The Blue Show, Circus Oz

The Blue Show, Circus Oz

the blue show

Circus Oz’s The Blue Show was billed from the outset as something unusual from the company. Housed in its new Spiegeltent, it promised an adults-only show as part of the midsumma festival, but what eventuated was something quite different. Less ‘adult’ in content than context, it was more an ageless celebration of sheer fleshy joy. Many similar Spiegeltent burlesques end up as shop-worn sequences of fairly tame titillation and nudge-nudge cabaret. Here, rather, was nudity and humour with a lack of inhibition that is often only found in children—it wasn’t that the acts set out to transgress social boundaries, but that they didn’t seem to even admit of their existence. Sure, there’s appeal in a show that allows us to enjoy a drink in intimate surrounds without toddlers scampering underfoot, but very much the same show could have played to all ages at an earlier timeslot without risking much outrage.

For me, the company’s regular higher profile family outings have long been hampered by “kid-friendly” clowning that doesn’t evince the same sophistication as some of the more intricate routines; the performers are all top-notch, but their talents can come across as dumbed-down when they don’t need to be. The Blue Show treats its audience as adults, as capable of viewing on a range of levels, but it also seems to me that many kids are just as able to handle this kind of subtle complexity. It’s encouraging to see the company branch off in this direction, and one can only hope that some of the acuity and focus displayed here will develop in the company’s more popular ventures in the future.

The Hayloft Project, The Nest, writers Benedict Hardie, Anne-Louise Sarks, after Maxim Gorky’s The Philistines, director Anne-Louise Sarks, performers Sarah Armanious, Stuart Bowden, Stefan Bramble, Alexander England, Brigid Gallacher, Julia Grace, Benedict Hardie, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Meredith Penman, James Wardlaw, set Claude Marcos, costumes Mel Page, lighting Lisa Mibus, music & sound design Russell Goldsmith, Northcote Town Hall, December 4–19, 2010; Melbourne Workers Theatre, Yet to Ascertain the Nature of the Crime, writer Roanna Gonsalves with Raimondo Cortese, Damien Miller, director Gorkem Acaroglu, performers Georgina Naidu, Greg Ulfan, Andreas Littras, performance consultant John Bolton, sound design by Mik La Vage, lighting Jason Lehane; Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, Nov 24-28, 2010; Circus Oz, The Blue Show, director Anni Davey, Circus Oz Melba Spiegeltent, Jan 13-Feb 6, 2011

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 44

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2011
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