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the ecstatic, needy, desirous body

douglas leonard: 2011 brisbane festival

Erica Field,  La Voix Humaine, Motherboard Erica Field, La Voix Humaine, Motherboard
photo Gerwyn Davies

If it appeared there was a surfeit of choices on offer in the festival’s Santos City of (laser) Lights, it nevertheless seemed possible to weave a narrative of works that were not in themselves spectacular in scale and yet spoke eloquently on the theme that live performance above all serves as a mirror to remind us that it is the ecstatic, needy, desirous body we share in common with the rest of our species that is the material basis of our capacity for fellow feeling.

This was writ large on a sparse stage by the dancers’ bare bodies in Les Ballets C de la B’s Out of Context—For Pina (see RT105) directed by Alain Patel (see interview). This wondrous and strange piece of dance theatre sought to restore us to “the roots of childhood and prehistory” (dramaturg Hildegard De Vuyst), certainly to a time, as Marx has it, before capitalism turned even our senses into commodities.

Jack Charles v the Crown is the story of a stolen generation child placed into care and denied both his culture and family. Charles’ subsequent career as burglar, jailbird, junkie and pioneer of Aboriginal performance is told by him without self-pity or bitterness. Starting with a replay of Charles as junkie in Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s documentary Bastardy, while Charles works at his pottery wheel downstage, seemed almost a prophylactic (Charles shooting up) against being overwhelmed by his utter charm and seductive, velvety voice as he combines storytelling, personal history, cabaret and courtroom drama to telling effect. Simply staged and fluidly directed by Rachael Maza Long, this show allowed Jack Charles’ devastating honesty, humour and stage mastery of storytelling and song, seamlessly backed in the musical numbers by three consummate stage musicians (who showed great affection and respect for Charles), to create an intimate and standout show about the sorry history of Aboriginal and white relations in Australia. Written with long-time friend and early collaborator John Romeril, Charles’ stories were true and raw, the comedy black and the justice of his appeal to have his criminal record sealed undeniable. But Charles is no victim: at 67 he was the shaman of his own soul and, in the performance space, ensorcelled us too. He roundly deserved the standing ovation he received.

Lucas Stibberd likewise, in Boy Girl Wall, creates that theatre magic where our hearts and imagination are wholly given over. Ultimately it’s lonely boy meets lonely girl but it’s the journey that grips us, the animate and romantic Wall that divides them finally immolating itself as the deus ex machina to get them there. Set in an inner-city suburb near you, this funny, clever, imaginative and breathless narrative barely flags as Thom (boy) and Althea (girl) pursue their separate trajectories through the minefields of (post) modern singles’ lives, evil magpies, intransigent objects, bastardly or at least indifferent bosses, string theory and quantum mechanics. On a nearly bare thrust stage, supported only by musician Sarah Winter, Stibberd’s unbridled inventiveness realises all the myriad characters, human and inanimate, using sock puppets, chalk drawings, an overhead projector and his own unflagging energy and timing to transform the Roundhouse stage into a place where, eschewing irony, finding what makes you truly happy becomes the only way to go.

Rhinoceros in Love, National Theatre of China, OzAsia 2011 Rhinoceros in Love, National Theatre of China, OzAsia 2011
courtesy OzAsia
Rhinoceros in Love from the National Theatre of China seemed to endorse the same sentiment but also, and perhaps unintentionally, reveals the dangers of rampant individualism. It’s hard to tell, not least because the text by Liao Yimei is so poetic (at least it appeared so in the surtitles), while the direction of her husband, Meng Jinghui, blurred dream and reality in a blend of Eastern conventions and Western avant-garde style that gave fresh resonance to the commonplaces of romantic love. The core plot concerns zookeeper Ma Lu’s (Nianhua Zhang) obsessive and unrequited love for neighbour Ming Ming (Xi Qi) who herself is hopelessly in love with a man who does not reciprocate her feelings and treats her badly. Ming Ming in turn treats Ma Lu indifferently and his only outlet for his feelings of rejection is the one-sided and impassioned conversations he has with the rhinoceros in his charge who is similarly solitary. However, as events unfold, Ma Lu can be seen as stalking his beloved, and he eventually kidnaps her, although this may be hallucinatory, occurring amid torrents of rain signifying his overflowing feelings and the full force of his damned-up passion. There is moral ambivalence here, suggesting Ma Lu’s all-consuming love is madness, but also endorsing, especially in Ma Lu’s final stirring address to the audience, that remaining true to oneself and to the authenticity of your heart’s desire is valid. (See Jonathan Bollen's review of Ozasia)

Ma Lu in his isolation at the end is not so far away from the position of Meursault in Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger, which was a cause celebre among the post-World War II generation of youth in Europe and America; and of Holden Caulfield, the young protagonist of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye which captured young people in the 1960s in a way that is comparable to the popular effect that Rhinoceros in Love apparently has had on the millennial generation in China. It also presents a highly satirical, comedic view of the effect of market forces on this generation and their aspirations and desires. This provided opportunities for sharp social vignettes conveyed with pointed humour by the fluid and polished ensemble. It reminded me in form, dedication and its questioning of social change, of the community theatre movement in Australia during the 1980s and was a welcome reminder of what has been lost in spirit through the so-called professionalisation of the arts in this country.

Some shows just push all the right buttons. Program notes tell us that The Dream Menagerie was loosely inspired by the Pyramus and Thisbe play from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the wedding scene feast from Tod Browning’s cult 1930s film Freaks with, according to director Scott Maidment, a tribute to Fellini in there as well and perhaps also the New Testament with the parading donkey (a winner). Fellini is apt, because Maidment has a filmic eye which can create audience-involving spectacles turning soap bubbles or canvas into a vast, undulating ocean. I’ve become a fan of Strut and Fret since the entrancing circus cabaret Cantina premiered at last year’s festival. This year’s production provided Maidment with more scope to play with the image of a lush, surreal, all-embracing human and animal menagerie that conjured our best hopes and at the same time was both visually and sonically ravishing.

But this is a soft and surface dream. The players, drawn from the bouffant tradition, are whitewashed of their darker side. While The Dream Menagerie faithfully delivers a parade of delicious imagery and circus skills, it fails to engage the essence of the bouffant, which the Freaks film itself sums up succinctly in the resonating phrase “if you hurt one of us you hurt us all.” Intrinsic to this, and equally ignored, is the underlying savage rivalry that percolates within the bouffant family. This seemed a sadly lost opportunity to juxtapose and play with deeper emotions. Nevertheless as a lyric paean to the magic and transformative power of the circus, it remained memorably haunting, existing in a unique category all its own.

Anna Robi and  The House of Dogs Anna Robi and The House of Dogs
photo Gerwyn Davies
Anna Robi & the House of Dogs is not for the prudish. Everyone’s viscerally, and in the mother’s case vulgarly, on heat. If you can’t stand it get out of the kitchen or in this case the Sue Benner theatre. The script is cruel, coarse, sexually blatant and darkly funny and does not flag as both mother and daughter trade blow for blow in what seemed at times a newly minted, female version of the old English classic comedy, Steptoe and Son. Desperate for love, a la Doris Day movies, or at least sex, Stephanie Smith plays Anna, the sexually simmering but naïve young woman who is the carer and companion for her self-pitying, manipulative and wilfully invalid mother, a failed dog breeder, played with magnetic horror by Jeanette Cronin.

Their house is a kennel, literally, the set floor littered with dog shit and newspapers, the dogs appearing as scarily realised puppets that copulate savagely and mechanically, and the centrepiece a bed from where mother in a neck brace and soiled nightie dominates the life of the house. The re-kindling of Mum’s sexuality truly made me blanch. Anna picks up, or papers over, the turds, meanwhile attempting to initiate an actual love life through furtive calls to Roger who seizes them as opportunities for masturbatory phone sex. Emerging Queensland playwright Maxine Mellor takes us by the scruff of the neck and wipes our faces in all this mess and we cringe at the same time as we laugh at this reality without decent boundaries that so unashamedly elicits our own botched lives. Perhaps Anna Robi & the House of Dogs can be blamed for having sucked all the available squalid buffoonery out of the air.

La Voix Humaine by Jean Cocteau was first produced in 1930 and is regarded as a modern masterpiece. It has been much adapted: Francis Poulenc’s opera La Voix Humaine, Gian Carlo Menotti’s ‘opera bouffa,’ The Telephone and Roberto Rossellini’s film version in Italian with Anna Magnani, L’Amore (1948). In this vein, Brisbane independent performance group Motherboard performed their own experimental multimedia version earlier this year. Although it only updated Cocteau’s concern with the effect of technology on people’s ability to communicate with each other in a new, exciting way, producer Dave Sleswick ran into copyright problems and was forced to restore the original script.

It is a solo piece where a woman speaks on the telephone to her ex-lover on the eve of his marriage to another woman. His part in the conversation is inaudible, comprehensible only from her bodily reactions and complicated by the comfortable lies she tells him to keep him engaged on the phone. Erica Field bravely took on a role that has been performed by such divas as Simone Signoret, Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman. Her performance as a woman falling apart was intelligent and absorbing, painfully conveying the ambivalence and contrariness of desire.

In this, Sleswick’s faithful rendition of the text, it becomes apparent that the woman portrayed is a melodramatic or romantic figure who gives her all in a manner that I would have said is out of sympathy with contemporary attitudes had not Field singing Piaf’s perennial, “Non, je ne regrette rien,” reminded me that the figure is an immortal one, however much it contextualises the work at a particular time. I look forward to Sleswick overcoming his problems and following Motherboard’s project to its zenith next year.

2011 Brisbane Festival: Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Jack Charles v the Crown, writers Jack Charles, John Romeril, director Rachael Maza Long performer Jack Charles, musical director Nigel Mclean, set & costume Emily Barrie, lighting Danny Pettingill, AV design Peter Worland, live musicians Nigel Mclean, Phil Collins Mal Beveridge, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sept 7-10; The Escapists, Boy Girl Wall, performer Lucas Stibberd, writers Matthew Ryan, Lucas Stibberd, sound design Neridah Waters, lighting Keith Clark, set Jonathon Oxlade with Lucas Stibberd, musician Sarah Winter, La Boite Roundhouse, Sept 20-25; National Theatre of China, Rhinoceros in Love, writer Liao Yimei, director Ming Jinghui, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sept 21-24; Strut and Fret Production House, The Dream Menagerie, creative director Scott Maidment, performers Captain Frodo, Imaan Hadchitti, Derek Ives, Derek Scott, Genevieve Thackwell-James, music Trent Arkleysmith, Spielgeltent, King George Square, Sept 6-24; Anna Robi and the House of Dogs, writer Maxine Mellor, director Iain Sinclair, performers Jeanette Cronin, Stephanie Smith, Dean Mason, Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts, Sept 20-24; Motherboard, La Voix Humaine, writer Jean Cocteau, translator Anthony Wood, production Dave Sleswick, performer Erica Field, Performing Arts Space, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, Sept 13-14

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 4

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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