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perth festival 2013

good lies & truth by degrees

john bailey: perth international arts festival 2013

The Truth 25 Times a Second, Ballet National de Marseille The Truth 25 Times a Second, Ballet National de Marseille
photo Pino Pipitone

Not an original thought, and not a very interesting one, but what most surprised me was that it didn’t seem mine at all. It certainly didn’t seem a poignant response to what was unfolding before me, and it took me a long while to unpack. As best I can understand it, now, it was a part of my mind protesting at the space between what it had been promised and what was subsequently delivered. And that promise was great.

the truth 25 times a second

The Truth is a collaboration between Belgian Frédéric Flamand and China’s Ai Weiwei, whose international renown is today inextricably bound up in his role as a national dissident. The performing ensemble breaks from ballet tradition in being heavily skewed towards male, which opens up much potential in terms of movement dynamics. And there’s the title: any work that invokes the troubled notion of “truth” in such a brazen fashion has some courage indeed.

That title itself is an allusion to Jean-Luc Godard’s famous proclamation that film is truth at 24 frames per second. As in much of the discourse around Ai, Godard was exploring the connection between art and politics, and the ability of the artist to explore the constructed nature of our reality and its connections with various forms of power. Updating the reference by one fps, presumably to incorporate the technology of video and its omnipresent use as a tool of surveillance, is a very suggestive move.

But what we get is some fairly standard live video capturing the onstage performance and beaming it onto a rear drop. There’s some pre-recorded footage of dancers in sterile urban spaces—a bathroom, an empty corridor—and an enlarged image of an eye that occasionally looks out toward the audience. There doesn’t seem to be much ‘truth’ under the microscope here, even in an ironic or negatory form. It’s almost as if the title was chosen because, well, it’s a nice quote.

As with so much of the work, the title seems closer to that notion of ‘truthiness’ [the term promoted by Stephen Colbert. Eds]. Everything has the sheen of meaning but the signifiers wind up unbound, untethered to anything but one another. The work draws inspiration from Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, another allusion that holds out the promise of Serious Art, but it’s hard to find any response to the novel here apart from a strictly formal one. People climb tree-like structures. Okay.

Ai’s contribution to the project is just as disappointing, but perhaps perfectly in keeping with its logic. The set is almost entirely composed of a series of interlocking ladders, many of which can be disconnected and rearticulated at different points. They form the aforementioned tree, are dragged like heavy wings behind a performer’s back, and at a stretch might draw associations with the frames of a strip of film, if we were dealing with film here instead of video. But after a time it seems that the combinatorial possibilities here are their own end, and we’re simply watching a game of ‘things you can do with ladders.’

The choreography itself is attractive, and again its formal aspects are perfectly admirable. The dancers are of an athletic variety and Flamand makes the most of this—perhaps a local equivalent would be ADT. It would be a satisfying affair if it weren’t for all that promise, which is even further reinforced by the hyperbole of the program notes. But it felt, in the end, as if a better fable to compare it to would be something about emperors and their attire.

duck, death and the tulip

Death and the Tulip, Barking Gecko Death and the Tulip, Barking Gecko
photo Jon Green
Take the other extreme. A few days later, speaking to a fellow critic about Barking Gecko’s Duck, Death and the Tulip, she exclaimed, “It didn’t lie!” It was a simple yet ideal rebuttal to that odd formulation that was still irritating my thoughts. Barking Gecko’s production doesn’t lie, and it makes for an astonishing piece of children’s theatre.

A duck lives out her days on a lake in quiet, carefree fashion until the handsomely-suited figure of Death arrives and introduces her to the very concept of mortality. He explains the various ways by which she might depart the world, but her infectious playfulness soon wins his affection and he spends the season in her company, holding back the inevitable. And then winter comes and the landscape freezes over, and the Duck dies and sinks beneath the waves.

There’s no lie. There’s no suggestion of an afterlife, no retreat into memory or the sense that the Duck’s death meant anything more than a duck’s death does. Nobody mourns, and death itself is presented for the dumb fact it is. From the faces of the younger children in the audience, this was an encounter that raised questions it refused to answer with comforting platitudes. There must have been some interesting conversations on the way home afterwards.

It’s a lavish production. A full band in white formal wear plays from an elevated spot at the stage’s rear, complete with Jazz Age half-shell footlights. Chris More’s projected backdrop is a subtle, painterly evocation of mountains and fields that shift gently across seasons, while a bathtub filled with rubber balls amply manages to suggest the lake in which much of the action takes place. Ella Hetherington’s Duck is energetic and mischievous and despite being wordless (she communicates through a duck whistle) never crosses into panto mode. As Death, George Shevtsov balances gravitas and dry humour.

None of this works to aestheticise the work’s central subject of mortality, however, to offer art as a soothing balm or fetish with which to keep death at arm’s (or wing’s) length. The final image is of Death returning to his lofty perch at the top of a ladder, surveying the land for the next creature he’ll be paying a visit. And so it goes.

la marea

La Marea La Marea
photo Toni Wilkinson, courtesy Perth Festival
As a celebration of life, there’s much to commend in Mariano Pensotti’s La Marea. Unfortunately it’s a celebration that takes place despite the piece, not just because of it: a length of street is transformed by a wandering audience who stumble upon any of a dozen vignettes played out on balconies, in shop windows and alleyways. There was something of a festival air, as all manner of strollers stopped to discuss the playlets with strangers, to offer conjecture or review. Many had happened upon the event by chance, and their curiosity added a frisson to the atmosphere.

But several logistical problems undermined the course of the evening. All of the scenes involved projected surtitles, as much of the text unfolded in the heads of each character, and in many cases the crowd gathered so close to the words that only 10 or so could read what was going on. For some sequences, sightlines were so narrow that only one or another player was visible to most.

The majority of scenes didn’t make much of their potential, either—given that so many were internal monologues by characters who were essentially static for their duration, thinking over their lives while sipping a drink or waiting for a date to show up, there was little impetus to look at anything but the text, when it was visible. It amounted to a series of short stories being read in public by a large crowd, which seems a let-down given the sheer scale of the event and the operational difficulties it presented. It was a hugely complicated production, but surprisingly lacking in complexity.


Barry McGovern, Watt Barry McGovern, Watt
photo Toni Wilkinson, courtesy Perth Festival
The opposite can be said of Gate Theatre’s production of Watt. One performer, Barry McGovern, recites Beckett’s novella on an almost empty stage, floating on the silence between his words. There’s so little to look at that every button, every mote of dust caught in the spotlight, takes on great significance. McGovern’s performance is just as precise, as if a rollicking shaggy dog tale told by a veteran jester in a pub had been repeated so many times, for so many years, that every pause and stop has been honed to perfection.

McGovern brings just enough of the clown in Beckett to get the tone of his writing right; too many take the writer’s works as a cue to deliver heavy-faced existential despair, whereas the seriousness of the work lies in the conditions to which it reacts, not in the actions of his players. His characters may live in a unforgiving universe, but they go on, in their manner.

Watt was the work Beckett gave us before Waiting for Godot, and it’s a fine companion, tracing the story of a man who takes up appointment as some kind of house-aid in a sinister manse whose occupants never clearly manifest. His ascension upstairs and relationship with the master take on a mystical aspect, but allegory is continually undermined by the narrative’s own unreliability and occasionally self-referential nature. In any case, Watt ends his story ejected from the space before discovering his true place within it, and unable to make solid sense of what has become of him. As with Godot, the possibility of existence’s meaninglessness is at all times counterpoised by a terrific abundance of language, which is itself liberated by its inessential nature. It may be a lie, but to lie so well is its own art.

Ballet National de Marseille, The Truth 25 Times a Second, choreography Frédéric Flamand and Ballet National de Marseille dancers, design Ai Weiwei, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, Feb 8-11; Barking Gecko, Duck, Death and the Tulip, writer Wolf Erlbruch, director John Sheedy, performers George Shevtsov, Ella Hetherington, Subiaco Arts Centre, Feb 8-16; La Marea, creator Mariano Pensotti, Rokeby Road, Subiaco, Feb 14-17; Gate Theatre Dublin, Watt, novel by Samuel Beckett, text selection & performance Barry McGovern, director Tom Creed, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, Feb 13-17

Representing RealTime, John Bailey was a guest of the Perth International Arts Festival. Illness unfortunately prevented coverage of the Robert Wilson production of The Threepenny Opera for the Berliner Ensemble.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 14-15

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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