Witch craft: the Fringe and beyond

Richard Murphet on Red Stitch, James Brennan, Impro Melbourne

Must be the season of the witch. October in Melbourne. Just before the magical or lacklustre work of the ‘leading creative artists’ installs itself into the major performance venues around town for the Melbourne International Festival, the Fringe and the fringe of the Fringe occupies the nether regions. It is as if the very spirit of theatre (I speak here only of theatre–though the Fringe gives expression to all art forms) spreads itself out into the warehouses and barns of the city and suburbs and energises them. The Fringe is a field of energy across the metropolis. The works and artists involved both feed and partake of the energy. Any one of them is somehow integral to, but less than the whole. What is truly amazing is the variety of works, performance spaces and audiences that weave the witch’s spell.

Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre is not strictly part of the Fringe, though they do have a play on during this period. Unlike the vagabonds, the fly-by-night groups, the one-off soloists and the duets that make up the bulk of the Fringe, Red Stitch has been around all year–though that is as long as they have been around and where they appeared from and how and why is a mystery. They are an actors’ group with no resident director, which sets them apart from most of the other groups that have emerged recently in Melbourne. This means that the focus in the choice of material seems to be to provide solid, meaty acting experiences for those in the cast. They put out the feelers for directors and have had almost as many as the number of plays they have mounted. Their commitment at the start of the year was to present 15 new shows in the first year. This is an enormous task for a non-subsidised group but they are keeping to their promise and by the time I saw their show in September they were up to their 10th–of which I have seen 4.

Psychopathia Sexualis by John Patrick Shanley is, if it is fair at this stage to so define them, a typical Red Stitch show–contemporary, urban, neurotic characters caught in a situation which confronts them sexually, socially, psychologically, a sort of black comic dark night of the soul. Except that on this occasion there isn’t much soul. The performances in Psychopathia Sexualis are relentlessly large; too large I think for a space as small as the company performs in and for an audience so close. It is as if the thinness of Shanley’s script draws from the performers the need to overcompensate, to give the audience the hit that they have come for, through the sheer weight of performance energy. At times this provides moments of delightful modern grotesquery but overall there is a sense of unnecessary expenditure of energy to little purpose. The fault lies not so much in the production as in the material chosen. Red Stitch is charting a path down the middle of Off-Broadway. I wonder if this path will lead them very far. They have their audience’s entertainment firmly in mind. But with actors as strong as these, a lot more thought could be given to the quality of the work chosen. They need to really get their teeth into something. From all reports, the following play, Howie, aims to do just that.

Red Stitch performs in a small space in St Kilda–a converted office or small factory, I presume. James Brennan and his company GoD BE IN MY MouTH choose even more marginalised spaces. Last year’s Piglet (the winner of the best Original Work in the 2001 Fringe) took place in Brennan’s inner suburban garage, converted for the occasion. The venue for this year’s The Glass Garden–upstairs in an old Bakery in West Melbourne–was so off-limits that we had to receive directions by phone (which adds to the mystery of course). The completely non-theatrical nature of the spaces suits Brennan’s work, which opens the door to the magical from within the fabric of the everyday. Brennan wrote, directed and took the central role in both works. They were vehicles for his fearless and unique performing talent. In him, the artist and the child fuse. He enters the world confronting him with all the awe, curiosity, fear, trust, joy and vulnerability of a young boy, but the edge of his performance style, its wit and its wisdom, are not simply childish. In Piglet, his guide and companion was a stuffed piglet toy. At the end of his pier, he caught in his net an entrancing, serpentine woman. He was duly entranced and transported into a Wonderland nightmare of cotton wool and fatness, where the woman became his adversary and the toy his sacrificial victim. Words cannot do justice to the sheer transformative power this show possessed. It was a gem, perfect in its pitch and exhilarating in its access to the creative spirit.

The Glass Garden is also about a journey. Confronted with the news that he has breast cancer, the journeyer leaves his job in a bookshop and is gradually drawn into a world without definition where, as he says, in his childlike attempt to understand it all, the signifiers and the signified do not match. The tree you are looking at may not be the same thing that I am looking at, may in fact not even be a tree. Again his seducers are women, mute but physically expressive. Here they are guides as well as seducers. Quite where we are left at the end of The Glass Garden is unclear. This is the first part of a trilogy. I could have done with some of the quality of verbal text that so enhanced Piglet. This one felt too dependent upon spacey movement, music and smoke. But when Parts 2 and 3 emerge, I’ll be there, ready for another disturbing dose of GBIMM witchery.

Finally, a group of Melbourne’s best improvisers (Impro Melbourne) presented 2 nights of long-form improvised Shakespeare. That’s right! One hour of spontaneous iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets to end the scenes, and in particular, a deep and witty understanding of how the unfolding structure of a Shakespeare play is the skeleton upon which any tragi-comic romance of lords and ladies can be hung. The night I went, the wittily suggested title from an audience member–Blind Venetian–set the group of 5 off into an intrigue of physical deformity, the transformational power of courageous love and the revelation that the princess’ physical ugliness was but a manifestation of her parents’ moral turpitude. It was apt that the highlight of a ‘high’ evening came when one of the actors mistakenly referred to the princess he was wooing by the name of a former lover. Then both ‘he’, the actor, and ‘he’, the character, were truly at one, engaged in an act of survival in iambic verse, while the audience and princess awaited with barely hidden hilarity the success of his endeavour. What we are witness to in theatre like this is the fallibility and criticality of every moment on stage and the sheer miracle that anything gets on at all in this raw laboratory for the power of the creative.

Psychopathia Sexualis, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, by John Patrick Shanley; director Janice Muller; Red Stitch Space, Sept; GoD BE IN MY MouTH, The Glass Garden, writer, director, performer James Brennan; music UBIN; with performers Patrick Brammall, Mia Hollingworth, Brooke Stamp; secret location, Sept 25-27; Impro Melbourne, Nights of Contemporary Theatre, improvised Shakespeare, directed by Kate Herbert, Carlton Courthouse, October.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Richard Murphet; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002