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participant, Tim Webster, In Periscope participant, Tim Webster, In Periscope
photo Bonnie Savage
THE NOTION THAT ART AFFORDS US FRESH PERSPECTIVES ON THE FAMILIAR IS SOMETHING OF AN EMPTY PLATITUDE; HOW OFTEN DO WE REALLY FIND OURSELVES CHALLENGED AS OPPOSED TO ASCRIBING ORIGINALITY AND INSIGHT TO SOMETHING WHICH MERELY CONFIRMS OUR OWN VIEW ON THE WORLD? EVEN THE FRAMES WE PLACE AROUND ‘ART’—AS OPPOSED TO ITS OTHERS—ARE DEPENDENT ON WHAT WE CHOOSE TO SEE AND WHAT WE HOPE WILL REMAIN ABSENT FROM OUR CONSCIOUSNESS.

in periscope

It was a right old surprise, then, to recently experience a tiny and very humble work of live art that literally shifted the frame. In Periscope was the ingenious creation of Tim Webster in collaboration with Sarah Rodigari and presented its handful of participants with a gentle yet effective physical and visual encounter with the city.

Upon arrival in a Melbourne laneway we were fitted with a curious piece of headgear—a steampunk-esque helmet held together with brass-painted screws and wires and with a large, rectangular face covering. When lowered it blocked all but the most peripheral of our vision but soon a panel was removed and a square of light appeared. The contraption was a periscope of sorts, presenting a magnified view of whatever lay directly above us. For the next 20 minutes we were guided around a city now only available to us in a strangely upended and abstracted way.

But as with most art that deserves the title, a description of the process doesn’t do justice to the experience. The effect of this periscope is an embodied one—it produces a sense of immediacy and alienation that goes beyond the conceptual. Moreover, it’s not the same as simply looking up while wandering the streets. The device framing our vision produces a screen rather than window on our environment and a distinct sense of dislocation results: the experience of our physical bodies moving through the urban space doesn’t correlate with the cool, distant flow of flattened architectural forms unfolding before our eyes.

As an experiment in live art making, In Periscope was subtle yet enthralling, much like last year’s En Route by Bettybooke (RT94). It produced that transfigured way of seeing so rarely found in art, yet did so in a modest and understated manner. It seems likely to me that this kind of achievement is more often realised in non-text-based work, but while the field of live art frequently shuns texts there are examples of more traditional theatre which still hold out hope for the transfigurative perspectives of the form.

 Amanda Falson, Thomas Conroy, Something Natural but Very Childish, Dirty Pretty Theatre Amanda Falson, Thomas Conroy, Something Natural but Very Childish, Dirty Pretty Theatre
photo Joe Calleri
something natural but very childish

Director Gary Abrahams’ first outing of 2010 was a literary adaptation—Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room), after James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room. There Abrahams proved himself keenly adept at drawing out the emotional intricacies of a literary work and using them to shape a compelling stage drama. His second work for the year, Something Natural But Very Childish, extended this same process to a selection of short works by Katherine Mansfield.

What makes Abrahams’ works this year stand out so sharply is an aesthetic commitment to something deeply unfashionable in contemporary performance: the romantic. They are almost anachronisms in this regard, treating the sentimental with a degree of seriousness that is slightly unsettling in an age of irony and self-reflexivity. They’re far from kitsch, however. Rather, they overlay a vaguely hysterical kind of heightened emotion onto the rich and resonant themes of his source material; at the same time, they never revert to camp parody. Where there is excess, it seems designed to reproduce the sense of giddy intoxication one experiences when drawn into a lush, imaginative literary world. The director’s success is in reawakening the possibility of a post-ironic theatre that is anything but falsely naïve.

slut

Playwright Patricia Cornelius works within this frame, as well. Her play Do Not Go Gentle... has been a much-feted fabulation of aging and loss, but her short work Slut is an excellent introduction to the surgical skill with which she employs familiar theatrical conventions to deliver the unfamiliar.

Slut was commissioned by Platform Youth Theatre as part of a double bill two years ago; I still recall that performance as the result of a key monologue which arrives near the work’s conclusion. I was eager to see whether my memory of the text’s excellence would hold up to a second production.

Verve Studios’ new version is more confident than the original, perhaps the result of the slighter older casting. The work itself is chilling, inspired by the murder of a woman by her boyfriend on a Melbourne street several years ago. At the time, media coverage focused on the tragic death of a passer-by who attempted to stop the violence, while sneeringly referring to the female victim as a ‘partygirl’ who came to an unsurprising end. This is both the origin and destination for Cornelius’ attempt to make sense of the event.

Her script traces the history of a woman who since puberty has been defined by sexuality; crucially, this history is largely revealed through the breathless commentary of two schoolmates who narrate the decade leading to the eventual murder. It is only late in the work that it becomes apparent that the figure at the play’s centre is mostly without voice herself or, when she speaks, it is in the language of those who are shaping her identity. That brief monologue in which she does find her tongue is still wracking—her assertion that she’d never been permitted to want or dream of anything beyond her immediate circumstances is a confronting one in a space, the theatre, where dreaming of that which isn’t the case defines the very essence of an audience.

weekend

The period in which Jean-Luc Godard created his notorious film Week End (1967) was one in which he, too, was grappling with the position of the spectator in relation to his practice. Having moved beyond the formal experimentation of his earlier work, he searched for a politicised cinema that rebelled against the paradigm of audience passivity. While a worthy goal, one of the results was, in the case of Week End, a film intended to alternately outrage and bore its viewer, with endless sequences of cool banter, disjointed title cards and scenes of real animal slaughter.

A recent adaptation of Week End presented at La Mama’s Carlton Courthouse brought different problematics to the stage while equally provoking its onlookers. Most troubling of all was the apparently deliberate obsolescence of the work—performers gleefully artificial, replete with bad accents and hokey props, but just as often playing as if uninterested. This isn’t to say that these performances failed to engage; instead, they seemed calculated to prevent any identification with the increasingly bizarre events occurring on stage.

But if coprophilia, dismemberment and cannibalism are just the stuff of entertainment today, and when invoked must be treated with the same bored contempt deserving of vacuous spectacle, then it’s unclear why a theatrical production would seek to remind us of this fact. Weekend seems a self-defeating production, one that heralds the demise of classical theatre by feasting on the remains. It’s not the only way, I think. Admittedly, though, it’s a pretty damned entertaining one.


Affective Urbanism 3: In Periscope, Tim Webster in collaboration with Sarah Rodigari, helmet design and construction Rob Jan, around Melbourne, May 29-30; Dirty Pretty Theatre, Something Natural But Very Childish, writer, director Gary Abrahams, performers Luke Jacks, Thomas Conroy, Amanda Falson, Luisa Hastings Edge, Josh Price, Zoe Ellerton Ashley, Cameron Moore; La Mama Theatre, June 2-20; Verve Studios, Slut, writer Patricia Cornelius, directors Paola Unger, performers Hayley Birch, Kelly Hynes and Victoria Morgan; The Dog Theatre, June 30-July 17; Weekend, writer Matthew Lambert, director Lynne Ellis, created & designed by Paul Blackman from Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End, performers Sam Sejavka, Francis McMahon, Ben Andrews, Christian Bagin, Imogen Sagel; La Mama Courthouse, Melbourne, June 30-July 18

RealTime issue #98 Aug-Sept 2010 pg. 10

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

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