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adelaide festival 2013

in the midst of death

jonathan bollen: theatre, adelaide festival 2013


Yet this year, in the midst of celebration, the tragedy of theatre was often felt. Violence, injury and trauma, physical and psychological, and death inflicted upon others in crimes of passion and times of war—these were the tropes of David Sefton’s wide-ranging theatre program, his first as festival director.

the kreutzer sonata

Renato Musolino, Kreutzer Sonata, Scenic Workshop, STCSA Renato Musolino, Kreutzer Sonata, Scenic Workshop, STCSA
photo Shane Reid, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
In some productions, the forces that these tropes unleashed were threatening and chaotic. The Kreutzer Sonata, an ambitious staging of Leo Tolstoy’s novella, directed by Geordie Brookman for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, sought the passion of Beethoven’s music to elevate the artistry of Tolstoy’s tale about a husband’s jealous murder of his wife. Rehearsing the grim misogyny and self-delusion of the narrator from the constructivist depths of the State Theatre’s Scenic Workshop exhausted Barry Otto, who withdrew before opening night. The production forged ahead with Renato Musolino bravely taking on the role. Women in the audience, old enough to be his mother, found moments of release as the actor delivered the invective. Would they have done so if the part were delivered by an actor of their husbands’ or fathers’ generation? Geoff Cobham’s architectural lighting and the hand-etched artistry of Chris Petridis’ video design were majestically expressive. But the production’s rationale was all but broken.

doku rai

Doku Rai, Black Lung Theatre & Whaling C0mpnay, Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy Doku Rai, Black Lung Theatre & Whaling C0mpnay, Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy
photo Tony Lewis, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
A four-year collaboration between the young men of Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy from Timor-Leste and the Melbourne-based Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm shook the gutted shell of the Queen’s Theatre with grubby violence, ritual slaughter and rock music. With the nation’s history of guerilla warfare, the colonial legacy of Catholicism and, now, the charity-capitalism of back-packing opportunists, Doku Rai re-enacts the story of a dead man, who is killed 77 times and never dies. Anarchistic energies, distilled from ritual mateship in a drinking circle, strut out on stage with the rock-star pride of fighting roosters and slash through our contemplation, balls in one hand, machete in the other. The production style is raw, and its surfaces are rough-and-ready. The meanings of its dialogue (much of it sur-titled) are without precedent. The violence stretches empathy to breaking point, way beyond the beneficence of, say, Katherine Thompson’s Mavis Goes to Timor (2002). (Female artists have largely been excluded from the making of Doku Rai.) But neither does the work resolve upon the sacrifice of white-man-journalist-as-hero that drove the film Balibo (2009), from which this collaboration emerged. There are risks in unfolding for an audience a process so unfinished, but the invitation is to witness the clash of collaboration. The provocation is to overcome our disbelief. Although in Doku Rai the killings are documented on video, the work is subtitled: “You, dead man, I don’t believe you.”


Kamp, Hotel Modern Kamp, Hotel Modern
photo Tony Lewis, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
Two European productions delivered death in more methodical ways. Hotel Modern’s Kamp from the Netherlands is a puppet show in which three performers animate a scale model of a Nazi concentration camp. The model filled the entire floor of the Festival Centre’s Space Theatre. Dormitories are arrayed in a grid formation, with guard towers and sections of barbed wire fencing and a train track that delivers load after load of prisoners. Crowds of tiny puppets in striped pyjamas are processed through the camp. Their clay heads and distorted faces bear silent witness to their terror. Their bodies are given action by the puppeteers; their actions are magnified with live projection from a handheld video camera and amplified with sounds of excruciating realism. The scene is bleak. A prisoner scrapes at the earth, another drags a fallen inmate across the yard. The guards survey the inmates from the tower, beat a fallen prisoner and chase another into an electric fence. The camera takes us inside the building where guards gas the prisoners and burn their bodies in the furnace. In another shot, we fly across a mass grave of the dead to arrive at one who is not dead yet. These up-close shots are so disturbing that the closing image of inmates sleeping in a dormitory is calming in relief. But it is the remote view that persists. Across the model camp, the scale of its operation mutely obliterates an individual capacity to care.


Nosferatu, TR Warszawa, Teatre Narodow Nosferatu, TR Warszawa, Teatre Narodow
photo Shane Reid, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
Nosferatu from Poland’s TR Warszawa and Teatre Narodowy likewise took a methodical approach to reviving Bram Stoker’s ‘myth that will not die.’ On a spacious set with measured speed, Grzegorz Jarzyna directed an ageless cast of characters. Nervous men and languid women animated a series of dramatic tableaux. The production recalled a period when medical science could extend the life of fantasy, when extending life itself was beyond reach. The actors in Nosferatu conveyed feeling with commitment, yet their absorption in their performance removed the drama from our world.


Beowulf—A Thousand Years of Baggage, BBB (Banana Bag & Bodice) Beowulf—A Thousand Years of Baggage, BBB (Banana Bag & Bodice)
photo Shane Reid, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
By contrast, the beer hall at the German Club, with its laminex tables, vinyl chairs and open bar, gave artists from two companies an opportunity to connect. A ‘songplay’ from BBB of the USA, Beowulf revived the Anglo-Saxon battle saga for an audience well equipped to recognise the cartoon-bribery of its satire. The work is testament to Brecht’s legacy in American theatre education. A story with ‘a thousand years of baggage’ makes theatre with a message to unpack. Scholars’ notes intact, two women frame the work ironically in post-feminist critique, so that another two can sex it up with back-up singing and go-go dance-burlesque. An impressive klezmer-fusion band of seven pieces plays on, while the boys play out the battles between Beowulf and the monster Grendel. Their nerdy over-acting is melancholic for warrior rites now lost, and they encourage laughter at the monster-mother’s grief.

the strange undoing of prudencia hart

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, National Theatre of Scotland The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, National Theatre of Scotland
photo Shane Reid, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
The National Theatre of Scotland also drew us into an encounter with mortality at the German Club. They promised “an evening of anarchic theatre” which they delivered, not with mock-ironic violence, but with homespun, hand-made charm. The company of five performers travels light. Each an actor, singer and musician, they play among the audience, under the house lights. They make music without amplifiers and create effects without a lighting desk. The opening scene—a snowstorm flurry created by the audience tossing torn-up paper serviettes—was beautiful, both as an immersion in the performance and as permission to participate. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is superbly told in song and rhyming couplets, silly and sublime. An earnest folklore academic, snowed in at a conference, spends the evening at the pub where karaoke renditions have supplanted folk traditions, and the manager of the B&B hoards a library underground with every book on Scottish folklore—except Prudencia’s, of course. Her undoing, in the end, is our deliverance, warmly willed with pop songs, football chants and love.

ontroerend goed

Smile off Your Face, Ontroerend Goed Smile off Your Face, Ontroerend Goed
photo Tony Lewis, courtesy Adelaide Festival 2013
What passes between us in performance is often the look, the touch, the tragedy of life and love. That was the message hand-delivered by three performances—The Smile Off Your Face / Internal / A Game of You—from the ensemble Ontroerend Goed of Belgium. Strictly speaking, these are experiences rather than performances. They are elaborated in intimate sequences of encounter, processed along assembly lines of affect that progressively reveal their means of propagation. Intense with aspirations for individual revelation, yet designed with care to handle the delusions of self-projection, their performances worked in darkness on reflection, tapped into inner glow, and lived beyond the moment in the after-life of emotion.

Adelaide Festival 2013: The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy, adaptation Sue Smith, director Geordie Brookman, Scenic Workshop, STCSA, Feb 27-March 17; Doku Rai—You, dead man, I don’t believe you, The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, Liurai Fo’er and Galaxy, Queen’s Theatre, Feb 28-March 4; Kamp, Hotel Modern, Space Theatre, March 12-17; Nosferatu, director Grzegorz Jarzyna, TR Warszawa and Teatre Narodowy, Dunstan Playhouse, March 14-17; Beowulf—A Thousand Years of Baggage, BBB (Banana Bag & Bodice), German Club, March 11-16; The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, National Theatre of Scotland, German Club, March 1-9; The Smile Off Your Face / Internal / A Game of You, Ontroerend Goed, STCSA Rehearsal Room, Adelaide, Feb 28-March 17

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 10

© Jonathan Bollen; for permission to reproduce apply to

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