Room of Regret, Life and Times: Episodes 1-4

Room of Regret, Theatre Works, St Kilda, October 27

Life and Times: Episodes 1-4, Melbourne Arts Centre, October 26

THE Rabble’s Room of Regret could have been expressly ordered by the Melbourne Festival to illustrate the essential unknowability of the critical process. As part of the festival’s investigation into the art of the critic I took part in a forum on criticism in the digital age and, predictably, at the end someone asked how could one trust reviews when there is such lack of agreement. It’s easy to laugh at the apparent naivety of the question but in fact it encapsulates the situation beautifully. Yes, there is glorious lack of agreement and no, you can’t trust opinion if you equate it with fact. We all have our own perceptions, influences, experiences and knowledge to bring to our reception of a performance, and by all, I mean all audience members, including critics.

Emily Milledge in The Rabble's Room of Regret. Photo: David Paterson

Emily Milledge in The Rabble’s Room of Regret. Photo: David Paterson

Room of Regret got a one-star review from Byron Bache in The Herald-Sun (“There are actors in it, but to name them would be to shame them…”) and one and a half stars from Cameron Woodhead in The Age (“… Emma Valente’s direction doesn’t rise to the occasion, leaving the actors running around shrieking …”). Artshub’s Mileta Rien (“haunting, thought-provoking, daring”) gave it five out of five and on The Guardian’s website Jane Howard went for four stars (“… an endlessly complex and intoxicating production…”).

On the ABC’s arts site Alison Croggon described the theatre-making as “bold, confident and often surreally striking”. All praise to the ABC for not succumbing to the idiotic star-rating system (The Age and The Guardian should be ashamed of themselves), although I must admit those glib little pronouncements help illustrate my point here. From one star to five: now that’s a reason all by itself to go to a show.

Room of Regret is a fractured version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, created by The Rabble’s founders Emma Valente and Kate Davis. The novel is so highly perfumed as to be exceptionally hard-going these days. Even so, its ideas of transgression, performance, transformation, possession of body and soul and the elevation of beauty to an object of worship time-travel with ease to the 21st century. I can understand why Valente and Davis find the work so fascinating and admire the way in which they go about seeking theatrical images and language to capture its spirit. They are by no means entirely successful, but there is gallantry and purpose in their attempt and moments of great pleasure.

On entering the small foyer at Theatre Works in St Kilda the audience member is given a ticket with a coloured sticker to indicate which of four groups she or he must join. Take note of the “must”. It’s often suggested that traditional theatre, with its “stage here, audience there and fourth wall separation between the two”, imposes a strict and old-fashioned level of control over the passive audience. It’s certainly a tenacious model. American iconoclasts the Living Theatre were trying to smash through the boundaries as long ago as the 1960s and on occasion, if the stories are to be believed, actors had sex with members of the audience. Now that’s immersive theatre. (The Living Theatre closed its doors in New York in February this year, its founder Judith Malina heading to a retirement home.)

There is a strong level of control at Room of Regret too (some simulated sex between actors but none with the audience, I believe I can safely say, simulated or otherwise). You go with the group you are given, you accept the veil placed on your head, you sit where indicated, you go with a performer when beckoned (if you are one of those chosen, as I was) and sit down again when your private experience is over. Unless you are extremely confident, Room of Regret would not be an easy show to leave.  I hasten to say I had no desire to leave. I merely suggest that theatre such as Room of Regret quite understandably has its organisational structure, and it’s not terribly different to the old one but with the actors much closer than usual.

Speaking of control, I have never felt more oppressed in this regard than at a New York performance of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a response to Macbeth with which Room of Regret has some similarities, albeit on a much smaller scale. There is the occupation of multiple spaces, the requirement that faces be covered, the impossibility for an audience member to see the whole piece from one perspective although a repeat visit may show an alternative perspective, the physical closeness of the performers and the suggestion that the performance space may also be regarded as an art installation. The Rabble, however, handles its audience in a far more respectful fashion than does Punchdrunk, or at least in my experience. There was a gentleness in their approach and touch that I found very sweet. Is that Melbourne versus New York? Perhaps.

The 90 minutes of Room of Regret unfold in a multi-roomed set (by Davis) delightfully strewn with golden petals; many of the production’s images are very striking indeed. The walls are flimsy plywood against which the audience sits, their backs sometimes pummelled by the action taking place on the other side. The walls make reasonable enough screens on which that action is transmitted via video to those unable to see it directly; text is often spoken into microphones to carry it around the whole space, although I found the sound system muddy, leading more to incomprehension than intrigue.

The actors dash from space to space, occasionally plucking a person from the audience for some quiet time or a dance. Key moments from The Picture of Dorian Grey are enacted, interpreted and often repeated. Text is taken from the novel and from other sources: Gertrude Stein, Amanda McBroom (she wrote the song The Rose, which gets an airing). Dorian is played by two actors (Pier Carthew and Alex McQueen) and Lord Henry Wotton by a woman (Mary Ellen Sassman).

As you can see, Valente, who directs, has plenty of ideas to offer, but unfortunately not quite the resources to make them into an experience that transcends its surface attractions. I found myself projecting on to the performance what Valente may be searching for rather than feeling a sense of intense communion with it. Partly that’s because technically Room of Regret is a bit rough while depending on technology to speak to the whole audience; partly it’s because the text is at times less poetically resonant than it aspires to be; a lot of it is because the five actors – the others are David Harrison as the artist Basil Hallward and Emily Milledge doubling as Sibyl Vane and a boy – have varying degrees of command. The men come out of it much better than the women.

There are critics who above all appreciated the drive, ambition and purpose of Valente and Davis’s vision. There are others for whom shortcomings obscured all else. I’m right there in the middle.

A PIECE of theatre you could leave without too much fuss was Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, and some people did exercise their right. How funny people are, and how bewildering. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that you’d do a bit of homework if you’d put down your money (or accepted an invitation) for a theatre marathon that got you seated at 2pm and finally released you out at 12.15am. You’d want to know a bit about what you were in for, no?

Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Life and Times. Photo: Anna Stocher Pressebild

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times. Photo: Anna Stocher Pressebild

You’d discover that Life and Times is verbatim theatre based on telephone calls with a member of the company, Kristin Worrall. She was asked just one thing: to talk about her life. Which she did, starting with first consciousness and digressing wherever and whenever, as we all do when trying to remember stuff. And the most cursory research would reveal that the verbatim text, delivered in performance by all members of the group, includes all the ums, all the ahs, all the likes, all the whatevers, all those little locutions that give us a moment to think or to prevaricate or to backtrack or change track or zone out for a bit, or to just give a sentence the right shape. Worrall, by the way, is in the core group of performers, playing flute and glockenspiel and occasionally jumping up to sing. How mind-blowing must it be for her?

Well, as I said earlier, we all see things differently so perhaps the walkouts did know a bit about Life and Times but it didn’t work out for them in the flesh. It certainly did for me. Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 was one of the great and glorious theatrical experiences of my very lengthy theatre-going life. In the hands of Nature Theater of Oklahoma the quotidian details of a life are made thrilling and important – made into a musical, in fact, in parts 1 and 2; an Agatha Christie-style thriller in parts 3 and 4 – as they describe discoveries, joys, humiliations and embarrassments common to us all. The triggers for one’s own memory are powerful and deeply, deeply affecting.

On one level this is an incredibly simple idea and yet it requires a high level of virtuosity in performance. The text is far from linear, there are all those interpolated sounds that are vital to the rhythm of the piece and the dance, while not difficult in itself, is extremely repetitive, until it is not. No wonder that, opera-style, sections have a prompter. Surprisingly no choreographer is credited, so presumably the movement is the work of cast and co-directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s founders. The moves are from eurythmics, rhythmic gymnastics and chorus line formations with a touch of marching band vibe and there’s also quite a lot of bobbing up and down. (In Part 2 the main performers, 10 in number, were augmented by a chorus of eight, found and rehearsed locally. They were great.)

I must acknowledge I didn’t quite understand the late appearance in Episode 4 of two creatures from outer space, but I was very tired by this point. I’d be so very happy to have another go at this delightfully mad, intensely absorbing and unique (how often can one assert that?) piece of theatre.

In September The New York Times reported seeing episodes 4.5 and 5 of Life and Times. The former is a half-hour animated film and episode 5 is a book given to each audience member. “The ideal time frame in which to peruse the book, we were told, was 44 minutes and 27 seconds,” wrote the NYT’s Charles Isherwood. And why these radical departures from earlier form? Apparently most of the telephone conversation that was to form the basis of the next instalments was lost in a technical glitch. But for Nature Theater of Oklahoma, another door simply opened.

Room of Regret ends on November 3.

Criticism in the digital age

Having been asked to take part in a forum on criticism in the digital age for the Melbourne Festival – it was held at the Wheeler Centre for books, writing and ideas – I wrote an opinion piece for The Australian on the subject. It happens to be exactly a year since I retired after 25 years at the paper. A lot has changed.

WHAT did you think? Did you like it? If you are at all interested in the arts you will have asked those questions and had them asked of you. Assessments are made and views expressed. Acts of criticism are entered into, whether formal or informal, closely argued or briefly encapsulated, backed by deep knowledge or impelled by an emotional reaction (or a combination of the two). The spectrum of response has always been broad but in the past only a small group of people had a wide public platform for their thoughts. Now everyone has a keyboard in their pocket and, it would appear, something to say.

Tonight I take part in a forum for the Melbourne Festival at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre called Criticism Now: Criticism in the Digital Age. It comes off the back of an outpouring of anguish – online of course – about the future of professional criticism in the age of the amateur whose enthusiasm knows no bounds.

With print under pressure there’s concern that the established media outlets will no longer be able to afford to pay critics, or in other words sustain the old model. I suspect there’s also an underlying anxiety is that when push comes to shove, those outlets may not rate reviewing highly enough to fund. That’s a reasonable enough fear. In the past few years professional reviewers have seen their patch increasingly overrun by citizen critics. The quality of criticism and its very nature are up for grabs.

Until recently there were no such clouds in the sky. I became a journalist because that was how my father made his living. My first memories of the business are of linotype operators at Dad’s paper, the Ballarat Courier, working at their huge, clanking machines to produce metal slugs bearing the words that would appear in the next day’s edition. Reporters pecked out their stories on typewriters, copy paper shot around the building via chutes and proof readers exercised stern quality control.

By the time I retired from The Australian, a year ago this month, I had seen the business up close for more than half a century. After the demise hot metal typesetting, other traditional jobs became vulnerable. Computerisation made linotype operators, proof readers and compositors redundant and journalists absorbed the old trades into their new multi-skilled lives.

And then … well, you know what happened next.

The jocular phrase “everyone’s a critic” has never been more potent. Word of mouth, always incredibly important to the arts, has migrated from small social circles to the broad reaches of Twitter and the comments section of online ticketing sites. Ideas that may have been discussed between friends have morphed into countless theatre, opera and dance blogs.

Digital publications with few resources but wide readership run crits from tyros who don’t expect to be paid. Old-media critics, often with many decades of experience, start blogs when they retire (guilty as charged!) and also don’t expect to make any money out of it, although they may also continue to write for their former employer (guilty again) and will submit an invoice. Younger critics bob up everywhere, promiscuous, if you like, in dispensing their favours in this free-for-all world.

The old ways are restricted but reassuring. Reviews are written by someone with the clout of the masthead behind them. Expertise is a given and there is always an editor handling the copy, acting as a sounding board and catching solecisms. There was, and is, a process that implies experience, knowledge, sound judgment and quality control. There will be cynics who say such things are rapidly diminishing in lockstep with newspaper staff cuts, but all I’ll say is that The Australian still has in-house sub-editors dedicated to working on the arts pages.

The mainstream media continues to have importance in the cultural discussion but has lost its singularity. As traditional media moves more extensively into the digital area and new digital-only mastheads establish themselves, the number of regular, known, serious voices in this realm increases rather than decreases. Whether these people are paid or not they constitute a group whose work is filtered and curated. That fact alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee the highest quality, but it gives guidance. In addition, there are unaligned bloggers of exceptional interest.

The avid consumer of arts writing has never had it better and it’s not just a matter of volume. Access and interactivity has empowered readers, albeit at a cost. The reader needs to be more alert, engaged and discriminating than ever, particularly as digital publishing alters the way people write, think and act. I’m fascinated by the ways in which experienced critics and those aspiring to be recognised critics have reacted to the freedoms and pressures of the digital space.

The most obvious freedom is that of space. It’s actually not a bad discipline to have to tailor a piece carefully to an unyielding requirement, but also a great joy not to have to rein in a thought or make blunt some nuanced argument for the want of a few more words. The astute online critic will write only so much and no more. Mostly, though, the critics I admire greatly are writing at great length, which leads me to a second freedom: release from the yoke of generalist language.

In newspapers there’s an expectation that anyone can light upon a piece and understand it; that it shouldn’t be so technical or academic as to exclude that shadowy character, the intelligent but general reader. Specialist online sites exult in detail and depth, the more the better. There’s freedom of style and tone, too, with no need to keep in touch with a newspaper’s house style.

Even if attached to a masthead, critics may be found directly via search engine so distinctive voices do best. The quiet, protective silo of the newsroom is gone. It’s a jungle of individuals out there and the meek are at a great disadvantage. We see writers becoming their own publicists, tweeting that a review has been posted (guilty again!). It’s best if there is a zinging phrase that can fit into 140 characters. There’s also much personal material sitting alongside the business tweets and sometimes the two can’t be separated. A corollary is that some critical writing may be passionate and partisan to the point where it can be difficult to separate criticism from advocacy. This is seductive, intimate territory.

These are, of course, generalisations because there are as many approaches as people writing. But whatever the approach, readers will decide from the multiplicity of sources which they value and prefer rather than passively accepting what’s put in front of them.

Print media is working hard to find a viable bridge between the old ways and the new. Online publications, if not supported by a trust or a philanthropist, also need to develop a workable business model. Not everything will survive the transition – remember the compositors – and I make no predictions. I do, however, have the deepest faith in the arts as a subject of study from a glorious multitude of perspectives.

A version of this article appeared in The Australian on October 24.

Sun

Hofesh Shechter Company, Melbourne Festival, October 13.

SUN finds Hofesh Shechter in a jocund mood, or what passes for it. The title implies warmth and light. Facsimile sheep wander and gambol. Every now and again a woman leaps up from the front row of the auditorium to utter a brief, piercing scream and then sits right back down again. One of Irving Berlin’s most swoon-worthy songs keeps punctuating Shechter’s thumping score and I swear there is twerking too, for just a moment (although not to Berlin).

Hofesh Shechter's Sun. Photo: Leah Robertson

Hofesh Shechter’s Sun. Photo: Leah Robertson

Of course where there is sun there is shadow. The announcement at Sun’s outset that “everything will be just fine” is contradicted at every turn and the apparently playful takes on a sinister light. The Berlin song is Let’s Face the Music and Dance; the sheep are occasionally joined by a wolf. There’s even a snippet of Wagner in the score, an acid touch from the Israeli-born choreographer. African colonialism gets a moment too, along with flashes of contemporary urban behaviour. If Sun has a theme it is this: lambs to the slaughter.

The imagery is obvious, heavy-handed and in the case of the sheep, tediously over-extended. Shechter’s surrealist collage pulls together an eclectic range of references to political and social oppression but there’s no real weight there. Ideas clearly important to Shechter have a trivial air. And if I could institute a ban on strenuous fake laughing in dance works it would take place from this instant.

It’s a different story with the dance itself, which forms a fast-flowing, often turbulent river on which this other material bobs about. As with his breakout hit Political Mother (2010), Shechter finds power and purpose in the group although it is rare to see any physical contact. He understands that togetherness and separateness co-exist inextricably and from this fact much of life’s tumult emerges.

Sun, which is having its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, is performed almost entirely in unison, the movement often rooted to the spot or covering little ground. Gestures are forceful and highly eloquent and there is frequent repetition, within a section of dance and within the overall structure. All this is done to a loud, foursquare beat – the kind of firm, regular beat that speaks to the blood.

Ritual and history are embedded in Shechter’s choreography. Fragments of folk and social dance from all sorts of places flicker and are then integrated back into the whole, although sometimes, as near the end of Sun, they harden into something less benign. The dance and these superb dancers tell the story.

By the way, the offer of ear plugs at Sun is unnecessary as the music really isn’t that loud. It could have been much more over-powering, something I very much wished for Sun as a whole.

Following its world premiere season in Melbourne, Sun has its European premiere in Luxembourg (October 25-26), its UK premiere in London (October 30-November 3), its US premiere in New York (November 14-16) and other European dates to mid-March.

This review first appeared in The Australian on October 15.