The empty spaces, 21 C

Jonathan Marshall at the Perth International Arts Festival

Needcompany’s Isabella’s Room

Needcompany’s Isabella’s Room

Needcompany’s Isabella’s Room

Peter Brook loomed large over the 2006 Perth Festival. Brook mastered a ritual, story-telling frame to bind together “a little of this and a little of that”—theatre for “the brunch eating class”, as The Nation put it. He helped establish a ‘fringe on Broadway’ style, mixing elements of dance, mime, opera, physical expressivity and text which distilled elements of avant-garde dramaturgy into rich flavours within more traditionally acceptable narrative or character based formulae. Canadian director Robert Lepage is Brook’s peer and heir here, a revival of Lepage’s La trilogie des dragons (1987) headlined at the festival.

Dragon Trilogy

A sparse, plastic scenography supported Lepage’s epic scope, offering 3 snapshots of interconnected lives in different cities populated by French-Canadians, Canadian-Chinese, Canadian-Japanese and Anglo-Canadians, their families, and star-crossed lovers. The opening established the tone: 2 Francophone girls recreate their neighbourhood using shoeboxes laid out on a rectangle of gravel (Brook’s proverbial “empty space”, pregnant with potential), bounded by a concrete path along which bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs, wheelbarrows and skaters later zoom. Lepage uses this dialectic between centre and periphery in conjunction with that between fast and slow to alternate between scenes of quiet, centrally located contemplation or intensity, and those later encircled and rendered storm-like by multiple figures rushing about the edges.

Lepage’s now venerable show was remarkable for this effortlessly controlled use of space. The director remains however an unreformed Orientalist. Spectators learnt almost nothing about the Asian characters who ‘featured’, only about Canada’s projection of itself and Lepage’s vision of spiritual redemption through interaction with such outsiders. Orientalist clichés ranging from the opium addled, gambling Chinaman to the avaricious white-slaver abounded. Even Madama Butterfly was uncritically (and implausibly) relocated to US occupied Okinawa. Brook himself brushed aside cultural difference as largely irrelevant, and any dramaturg like Lepage who still quotes with approval “Antonin Artaud saw theatre as Eastern” must be viewed with suspicion by those of us critical of Western fantasies about the ‘mysterious East.’ Nevertheless, in reminding one of the scenographically and performatively expansive modes underpinning popularly successful epic works from The Mahabharata (1985) to Angels in America (1991) to Susie Dee’s Tower of Light (Melbourne, 1999), Lepage’s theatrical skills yield deeply moving work.

Chronicles—A lamentation

Although Polish company Teatr Piesn Kozla developed their expressive style from Jerzy Grotowski and other sources, Chronicles—A lamentation recalled Brook’s gently lulling, melancholy rituals more than Grotowski’s intense and abstracted Catholic mysteries. Amidst earthy hues, unpainted wood and brown costuming, 7 performers sat or stood in an otherwise empty space, each word, musical lament and exhaled expression directed at the audience as they rolled their weight from foot to foot like boxers or capoeira dancers. The Albanian and Polish text was sung in the polyphonic style popularised by the Mystère des voix bulgares CDs. In Edinburgh, spectators were given printed translations of the show’s text, but here the narrative was simply vocalised, demonstrating the error of Brook, Grotowski, Herbert Blau and others. Throughout the 1970s, artists claimed to isolate universally embodied forms of human expression. That Chronicles failed to communicate illustrated their mistake. The performative emphasis on actors speaking at the audience meant that Chronicles functioned as an intriguing collection of physical hieroglyphs which, while designed to have dramatic content, remained opaque to most Perth spectators.

The Drover’s Wives

Though far from Brook and Lepage, The Drover’s Wives also sustained a tension between abstraction, history and narrative. In director Sally Richardson’s dance theatre piece, 5 performers depicted the stories of 2 turn-of-the-century women abandoned by their husbands in the bush. The choreography mixed overt mime (hanging washing, etc) with simple, unison dance. The movement truly shone, though, when a dark sense of abstraction took over. In Richardson’s rendering of Barbara Baynton’s story from The Chosen Vessel (1902; Jonathan Mills’ source for his opera The Ghost Wife, 1999), an unseen swagman raped 1 of these women. The others transformed into beastly presences, on all fours with shoes on their hands, their stomping, leather-shod limbs menacing the wife before she was encircled by tree stumps, as though the very bush itself was attacking. Iain Grandage guided the show’s trajectory, his mildly Sondheim-esque score recalling Lennie Niehaus’s for Pale Rider (1985) and Unforgiven (1992) in its rhythmic combinations of folk instrumentation, strings and cut-down orchestral motifs. The Drover’s Wives was another popular work which frayed under intense scrutiny. Ostensibly an exploration of feminine isolation, the ensemble work rather suggested an oscillation between individual loneliness and feminine community, of women coming together to share domesticity and spatial play. It was moreover not clear why, of the 5 dancers, 2 played specific characters. Who were the other 3? Aspects of the first 2? Finally, the radically different sense of cultural space—and that of the stage design itself—as one moved from bright, projected landscapes of the inland plains to dense, dappled ironbark forests, was not explored. Nevertheless, the broad scope of the production and its sense of light engagement made for stimulating viewing.

Super Vision

Compared to the antiquarian neoclassicism of Chronicles, the Builders’ Association’s Super Vision glistened with modernity. Using digital projection, director Marianne Weems offered 3 sketches dealing with the transmutation of identity via computerised data: a New Yorker helping her Indian grandmother to archive and identify photographs from her life; a man using his son’s name to evade mounting debt; and an Indian-Ugandan repeatedly stopped by US Customs. Images of the son and live close-ups of the other performers were projected onto translucent screens effortlessly sliding in front of the main stage. Behind the performers curved a space bearing the projected sets. The intricate digital designs were laid on black in blocks of line, colour and text reminiscent of the London Underground map. Sound and music underscored the performance, the use of bird calls as an abstract, vaguely digital aural signature echoing Stories From the Nerve Bible (1992) by Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno. Like much slick, postmodernist performance, the scenography and music gave the piece an oddly dated ambience—very mid 1990s, a production buoyed by the sharp rise in interest in the internet and new technologies which has yet to abate. Super Vision was more impressive in form than content, Weems contrasting the strangely flat sense of glossy ecstasy sustained by the efficiency of her onstage technology with ambivalent, mildly dystopian narratives. Even the father’s attempt to flee beyond technology to the Far North seemed borrowed from Anderson’s tale of setting out for the North Pole. A particularly perspicacious narrative detail though was that the traveller was initially identified as a security or health risk because of his racial and geographic origins, but was eventually given a royal welcome once his prosperity became apparent. In contemporary global capitalism, class can trump race. (See also Kate Vickers review on p27.)

Isabella’s Room

Alongside such supremely proficient, crafted works, it was Needcompany’s Isabella’s Room which provided challenging aesthetic defamiliarisation in its radical objectification of onstage materials. Director Jan Lauwers mixed an easy, off-hand performativity with dense allusions. Twentieth century history and life became a room, a clutter of objects and people. Characters died during the narrative, but did not leave the stage. The past remained.

The conceptual centre was an assemblage of African and Middle Eastern art works and objects which Vivianne De Muynck (Isabella) told spectators were first left to Lauwers by his real father, and then to the fictional Isabella by the paternal liar who raised her. Like everything in this production—actors, musical instruments, voices, words—these materials stayed immutably themselves, objects incapable of transformation yet thick with an opaque past. Unlike Lepage, Lauwers did not offer transcendence through sharing culture or history. Rather he relied on a knowing ignorance and distance. Stripped of their colonial contexts, the stone penis, the slave’s shackles and the Ashanti bronze remained simply that: objects about which one knew a little, but which one could not fully comprehend through a blithe, 90 minute show. As one of Isabella’s lovers said: “You’re a liar Isabella! You told me people were good!” Like theatre itself, Isabella’s Room was a world of lies, some beautiful—that she was raised on a lighthouse, betwixt land and sea—but also ugly—the rape of her mother, the bombing of Hiroshima transformed into an aesthetic image, “as if the sun had exploded and scattered its ash over the earth.”

Delivered as a series of interrupted monologues, the performance effected an easy familiarity, mixing storytelling, verbal poetry and physical interactions on an open, white stage. In sifting through the beauty, banality and ugliness of this century of war and love which Isabella endured, choreography was both invested in and yet discarded as wanting. Lauwers compares his dramaturgy to Jean Baudrillard’s description of postmodern society as “beyond the end”, characterised by “extreme phenomena.” Lauwers’ confusing yet entrancing project expressed the political, social, aesthetic and emotional ambiguity of this condition, in which history seems to have ended, yet, as the cast sang in the finale, suffering, life, love and violence “go on and on.” In the end, Lauwers’ concentrated, festive gobbets proved more weighty than Lepage’s 6-hour-long yet pleasingly digestible menu.

Ex Machina, La trilogie des dragons, director-devisor Robert Lepage, Claremont Showgrounds Feb 11-19; Teatr Piesn Kozla, Chronicles—A lamentation, director-designer Grzegorz Bral Octagon, Feb 14-18; Steamworks & Black Swan, The Drover’s Wives, director-devisor Sally Richardson, performer-choreographers Claudia Alessi, Felicity Bott, Shannon Bott, Jane Diamond, Danielle Micich, composer-performer Iain Grandage, designer Andrew Lake, costumes Zoe Atkinson, projections Ashley de Prazer, Danielle Micich; Playhouse, Feb 3-11; The Builder’s Association & Dbox, Super Vision, director/devisor/text Marianne Weems, His Majesty’s Theatre, Feb 14-19; Needcompany, Isabella’s Room, director/script/set/lights Jan Lauwers. His Majesty’s Theatre, Feb 14-18; 2006 Perth International Arts Festival, Feb 10-March 5

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 36

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006