what’s a dramatist to do?

john bailey: melbourne performance

MKA Theatre, sex.violence.blood.gore

MKA Theatre, sex.violence.blood.gore

MKA Theatre, sex.violence.blood.gore

IF EZRA POUND’S ‘MAKE IT NEW!’ WAS A RALLYING CALL TO ARMS FOR THE VANGUARD OF MODERNISM, THE PHRASE HAS IN RECENT YEARS BECOME MORE OF AN ANXIOUS ONE MUTTERED COMPULSIVELY, MANTRA-LIKE, TO WARD OFF SOME VAGUE EVIL.

Artists now remain charged, by tradition and funding guideline alike, with the demand to innovate and reinvent and find novel ways of doing the same old things. It’s all-too-obvious when a sharp and beguiling idea has been lost amid a flurry of formal trickery that appears forced; when someone’s original intent has been clouded by some notion that this alone is not enough. When a work does engage with the new in ways that don’t seem anxious or unsettled, then, it puts everything in bold relief.

sex.violence.blood.gore

MKA Theatre has only been around for a few years, but has already made reckonable advances from its hit-and-miss beginnings to a program that’s always worth studying closely. At least two recent works have been unmissable—last year’s The Economist (RT107) and the even more startling and accomplished sex.violence.blood.gore. Where both offer much to encourage is in the negotiation of experiment and convention. MKA is a company dedicated to the text, seeking out and presenting to the public new works with a solid investment in the good ol’ fashioned written word. But in these later productions, at least, there has been no hint of slavish reverence to the play, and neither has there been a need to inject irreverence where not necessary. The result has been an organic marriage of text and performance that makes the two seem inextricable.

sex.violence.blood.gore was written by Singaporean playwright Alfian bin Sa’at and, given its outrageous subjects, was understandably scandalous when first performed (in relative secrecy in a basement, no less). The work is composed of a series of vignettes that defy categorisation—farcical psychosexual/historical/political playlets united less by a specific thematic or narrative line than a particular energy that runs through each. It’s a kind of uncontainable libidinal excess. It’s not that kind of taboo-breaking transgression that so often reaffirms the binaries supposedly blurred; rather, it’s a sexuality that is too much of everything—too overwhelming and everywhere, simultaneously explicit and repressed, hysterical and hilarious, but also too self-aware, too self-negating. This excess is what drives the work so urgently. At no point can an audience member think: ‘This is what’s really being said, I see now,’ without immediately being offered something to contradict such a conclusion.

The individual sequences gesture to contemporary and historical Singapore while introducing more abstract and non-naturalistic terms of reference. A local under the Japanese occupation of WWII is made a sexual slave by foreign forces; a pair of tightlaced British colonialists fantasise about their subjugated maids; trash-talking teens on a train spark up a strangely eroticised verbal slanging match with two transvestites. All is played against type, however; actors are cast cross-gender and -ethnicity, while make-up and costume are heightened to the point of absurdity.

Most of all, the performances suggest that what matters most here is identity, both individual and social, as masquerade. Nothing is allowed the aura of the authentic, but rather than resulting in a diminishment of significance, a liberation of meaning occurs in which the playful interchange of masks seems to be the catalyst. To look for the real behind the painted face isn’t even a consideration.

I wasn’t the only person to leave the theatre with a desperate desire to read sex.violence.blood.gore in its original form. Stephen Nicolazzo’s direction is most fascinating in the way it makes it impossible to tell whether he’s radically reinterpreted the text or stuck to its dictates. The whole could be played in an entirely realistic fashion and still hold great power, but I don’t know where Alfian bin Sa’at ends and Stephen Nicolazzo begins here. I probably don’t want to. The whole I saw, in all of its enveloping messiness, was more than enough to satisfy.

the golden dragon

Rodney Afif, Roger Oakley, Golden Dragon, Melbourne Theatre Company

Rodney Afif, Roger Oakley, Golden Dragon, Melbourne Theatre Company

Rodney Afif, Roger Oakley, Golden Dragon, Melbourne Theatre Company

There’s no such fuzziness in Roland Schimmelpfennig’s masterful The Golden Dragon, in which the text itself enacts an initially playful but eventually oppressive battering of its performers. Schimmelpfennig has for some time experimented in this manner, with works that foreground their own staging (and pre-staging) by having actors recite stage directions, pauses and the like. The Golden Dragon combines this mode of presentation with a tightly woven narrative passing through bleak and arresting terrain.

A broad series of interwoven plotlines circle the pan-Asian restaurant of the title. In the kitchen, an illegal immigrant has a tooth yanked by coworkers and begins bleeding to death amid the steaming dishes; the incisor makes its way into the soup of one of two airline stewards on stopover; a nearby German shop owner entices a dumped lover into his dingy upstairs apartment; and a young Chinese girl is trapped in a nightmare of sexual slavery.

Early on the postmodern permutations of the playing style position the work as meta-theatrical comedy, and there are plenty of laughs (the actors ably fulfil the demands of the required style). But as the work develops, it becomes apparent that the world on display is one of permanent displacement, with workers from all walks of life severed of rootedness and stripped of their agency as a result. If sex.violence.blood.gore finds an energy in inauthenticity, The Golden Dragon offers an opposite vision. There is poetry, as in a recurring fairytale about a foolish cricket abused by a menacing ant, but this too soon becomes a ghastly abstraction that mythologises a very real act of monstrosity.

Perhaps this is Schimmelpfennig casting a critical eye on his own practice—certainly, it calls into question the complicity of post-dramatic theatre in cultural disempowerment. Denying theatre an essential ability to speak truth might well put us all in the same position of the work’s characters, and indeed its actors, and rob us of the tools with which to imagine our own change, let alone take some action of our own. If so, what’s a dramatist to do? That Schimmelpfennig ends with a lyrical image that provides no useful answer is both encouraging and unsettling. No easy end to this night, but plenty to chew over.

from the ground up

Mason West, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

Mason West, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

Mason West, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

Circus Oz’s latest production, From the Ground Up, explicitly addresses the long-running company’s own reinvention. Its design aesthetic is based around the construction site—giant steel girders descend from above, cranes and construction equipment hover around the space. It’s fitting, given the recent completion of a brand new, dedicated home in Collingwood. It’s also a symbol of how the company seems, to this writer at least, to have been undergoing renovations more than merely cosmetic in recent years.

It’s not quite right to say that Circus Oz has become more serious in the last half-decade, but it does seem to have found the next level of confidence which might suggest some kind of maturing. The clowning (always a key binding ingredient in any CO show) is more developed, less directed as kid-oriented filler between acts and more cohesive and wry. Newcomer Ghenoa Gela certainly stole the show at the matinee I attended—stirring in gentle political commentary without losing the attention of the crowd’s youngest members, and generating real laughs throughout.

But circus has one of the hardest tasks in ‘making it new’—most of its elements come with histories that may span centuries, and trying to reinvent these is more about subtle tweaking or dressing up trapeze, balance or juggling in unusual trappings. That shouldn’t be a negative. The company’s last outing, Steampowered, was one of its finest in the way it teamed strong performances with a striking steam-punk aesthetic. The spectacle of a construction site just can’t match that, really, and From the Ground Up might have sacrificed something in going for a symbolically relevant theme.

Recently entering its 30s, though, Circus Oz is definitely out of its cocky teens and there are few lingering insecurities of its 20s. Its experiments might not be as radical or showy as the kinds you see on a play stage or gallery wall, but they’re there, and we’re immeasurably luckier for it.

MKA Theatre, sex.violence.blood.gore, writer Alfian Bin Sa’at with Chong Tze Chien, direction Stephen Nicolazzo, performers Genevieve Giuffre, Catherine Davies, Matt Furlani, Whitney Boyd, Amy Scott-Smith, Zoe Boesen, Caitlin Adams design Eugyeene Teh, lighting Yasmine Santoso, sound Claudio Tocco; MKA Pop-Up, North Melbourne, Jun 29-Jul 17; Melbourne Theatre Company, The Golden Dragon, writer Roland Schimmelpfennig, translator David Tushingham, director Daniel Clarke, performers Rodney Afif, Ash Flanders, Jan Friedl, Dana Miltins, Roger Oakley, design Andrew Bailey, lighting Emma Valente, sound Russell Goldsmith, MTC Lawler Studio, Jun 22-Jul 7; Circus Oz, From the Ground Up, performers Ania Reynolds, Bec Matthews, Carl Polke, Chad Albinger, Dale Woodbridge, Flip Kammerer, Ghenoa Gela, Hazel Bock, Jeremy Davies, Luke Taylor, Mason West, Ruby Rowat, Shane Witt, Stevee Mills, Circus Oz Big Top, Birrarung Marr, Melbourne, Jun 20-Jul 15

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 36

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

10 August 2012