Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

Sydney Festival, January 8.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which Meow Meow has based her new show is typically gruesome: an innocent young creature gladly endures unspeakable agonies in order to be close to Prince Right, only to see him promptly marry someone else. In an interview in November 2011, with Steve Dow, she said that “The Little Mermaid is about sexual punishment, in many ways for love”. She has all her power taken away “in order to have love”.

Meow Meow, the famously passive-aggressive – and very powerful – kamikaze cabaret artist, might be expected to take this badly. Indeed, she recently told The Australian’s Matthew Westwood that the story “is very resonant for me as it’s a perceived fate or destiny — so often imposed on the tragic female diva — that I do not want.”

Little Mermaid_SF 2016_credit Prudence Upton 004

Meow Meow in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid. Photo: Prudence Upton

So what’s up when she tells her audience that Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a show about happiness? She means it, too, in a Meow Meow kind of way. This Little Mermaid takes a scalpel to the original, peels away the layers and peers into the dark. Obsession, self-abnegation and physical mutilation get their moment as Meow Meow prowls, twirls and hobbles her way through the minefield that is romantic love and sticky sex, hoping for a shot at fulfillment.

As always, Meow Meow may be observed on multiple levels simultaneously. The diva’s fabled ability to seduce an audience with fragile neediness and control it with an adamantine will is in full bloom and those expecting Meow Meow to co-opt audience members, crowd surf, bitch about the management and sing like a voluptuous fallen angel won’t be disappointed. On the surface there is much that’s familiar, even cosy. The real action is in the knotty mess of emotions, impulses and desires underneath, particularly in the songs, of which many are new. Listen carefully.

Meow Meow isn’t afraid to tread the primrose path, as in Megan Washington’s gorgeous Making Love: “I don’t mind strings, you can leave them attached.” The opening song, Black’s Wonderful Life, speaks of magic everywhere but loneliness too. Meow Meow’s off-sider in this show, Chris Ryan, gives a piercing account of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea), in which tears of love prove fatal. As I say, listen carefully.

Meow Meow’s ending is a happy one because she chooses it to be so. She may be tossed and buffeted in the sea of love but by god she’s not going to drown. In a funny way Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has a happy ending too. Our wishy-washy heroine, having displayed her shining goodness, is given a shot at immortality. If that counts as happiness.

Our Meow Meow is made of sterner and earthier stuff of course, but it was nevertheless possible to discern in her show the hint of a gentler, kinder Meow. Perhaps for now.

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, January 28-February 14; Perth International Arts Festival, February 24-28.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 11.

Love and Information, twice

Minetta Lane Theatre, New York, February 9, 2014

Sydney Theatre Company, July 15, 2015

The script for Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information gives little away at first glance. There are many scenes and no stage directions. Characters are not named and only very occasionally is it clear that lines or actions must be assigned to a man or a woman. There are rarely instructions about whether you need one, two or more people to enact the scene. Every now and again a certain setting is implied but mostly the characters could be anywhere. Most scenes can be achieved with only two speakers or even one but potentially there can be more. Sometimes. The choices open to the director, in other words, are multitudinous.

Sydney Theatre Company-Malthouse Theatre's Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

But there are also strict parameters. Churchill allows some flexibility about scene order but only within individual “acts” (Love and Information runs without a break for something under two hours). There are seven of these sections, each of which has seven scenes, and the play ends with an immovable final extra scene. Every scene in the main body of the text must be played, plus at least one “Depression”, a fragment of thought (there are 10 or so available) that can be placed anywhere. That means the minimum number of scenes is 51, although there can be more than 70 if a director chooses several Depressions and some or all of more than a dozen optional scenes.

It’s a fascinating combination of freedom and precision, and a structure that brilliantly illuminates one of Churchill’s central ideas. In Love and Information there is almost constant tension between certainty and uncertainty – what we think and what may be the truth; between feeling and fact. Not that we can necessarily trust everything that’s presented as gospel, or have complete faith in everything we are sure we know. In scene after scene there are secrets, deflections, illusions, evasions, misconceptions and revelations. In Wedding Video, for instance, a person can recall only the things that were recorded on that day and nothing else. In Affair, a person struggles to reveal to a friend an infidelity she knows about, one that closely affects the friend. As if happens, the friend has known for ages. Years. More chillingly, in Torture there is the following exchange: “He’ll get to where he’ll say anything.” “We’re not paid extra for it to be true.”

Churchill’s vignettes whizz by like tickertape news flashes, some as short as a few seconds, touching on information and the reception and exchange of it in many guises: scientific data, official reports, personal records, conversation, flirting, arguing, religious belief, gossip, memories and – most potently – memory itself. The accumulation of ideas is exhilarating and if some scenes fall a little flat, well, there’s another along in just a moment. For the most part, though, Love and Information zings along with the kind of wit and economy most writers can only dream of. Here, in its entirety, is the scene titled Sex:

What sex evolved to do is get information from two sets of genes so you get offspring that’s not identical to you. Otherwise you just keep getting the same thing over and over again like hydra or starfish. So sex essentially is information.

You don’t think that while we’re doing it do you?

It doesn’t hurt to know it. Information and also love.

If you’re lucky.

 

What, though, to do with all this stuff?

Love and Information premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2012 in a dazzling production directed by James Macdonald with a set by Miriam Buether. That production was restaged in New York at the Minetta Lane Theatre, which is where I saw it early last year. This year Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre joined forces for a co-production, a significantly different one directed by Kip Williams and designed by David Fleischer.

The play is hugely demanding on cast and crew. Not only are there dozens of short scenes, Churchill instructs that each involves new characters, about 100 in all. Every scene is written as a discrete entity and Macdonald’s production emphasised this disconnection. Beuther’s set, a stark white cube with lines suggesting graph paper, was rendered utterly invisible after each scene. As if by magic (a super-speedy shutter apparently) the bright light was gone and darkness engulfed the space. There was not a flicker of movement to be seen on stage. Seconds later the shutter opened in an instant – more magic – and a new scene appeared. The swiftness of changes, often reasonably elaborate, was extraordinary; almost hallucinatory. (The effect has been likened to a series of snapshots.) First you saw it; then you didn’t; then you saw something completely different.

There was a strong sense of the laboratory, with the gleaming white, the tightly circumscribed space and the implacable, impersonal blackout. The characters were pitilessly under the microscope as they tried to connect with one another in this highly controlled environment.

Williams’s production needed a different solution for the open spaces of the Malthouse and STC’s Wharf 1. Fleischer’s fluid set of large white blocks is lightly suggestive of a maze, although the elements are moved so frequently (and vividly – that swimming pool!) to create other environments that the notion of an experiment is much less strong than with Beuther’s design. The lights might be lowered as the actors move the blocks but they could be seen going about the business of altering the landscape. This flow between spaces, and between actor as character and actor as stagehand, is inescapably part of the piece.

And – this is important I think – there are only eight actors in Williams’s production where there were 16 in Macdonald’s. Williams’s men and women become very familiar and interesting to us as the play progresses. We see them a lot as they come and go, sometimes very swiftly indeed on their way to their next costume change, and Williams also chooses to populate some scenes with more than just the required speakers. Even though the actors are always playing a new part, this is very definitely a group rather than a random set of individuals. I was also very struck by one of Williams’s choices near the end of the production where he lets several scenes flow into one another in complete contrast to Macdonald’s total observation of demarcation between scenes. In the STC-Malthouse production a natural history museum amusingly complete with specimens of early ancestors and a sombre graveyard add associations and atmospherics to scenes written with no suggestion of them.

Ursula Yovich and Harry Greenwood in STC-Malthouse's Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Ursula Yovich and Harry Greenwood in STC-Malthouse’s Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Perhaps the easiest way to define the key difference between the productions is to say that Macdonald made one observe how difficult it is to achieve true communication despite the many tools at our disposal, and how fascinating that is to study, and that Williams made one aware of how deeply people need to communicate, no matter how imperfectly they do it. Macdonald’s production looked elegant, sophisticated, cool, distancing. It was a technical tour de force. Williams’s is warmer and more touching. Macdonald leaned towards the information side of the ledger, Williams is drawn to love. There is great value in both and each gave me different insights into the play.

E.M.Forster’s famous lines from Howards End come to mind: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”

Love and Information continues at Sydney Theatre Company until August 15.

Love and information: international theatre in 2014

TWO pieces of 2015 theatre programming in Melbourne would have interested me anyway, but having seen the shows in New York early this year makes them irresistible. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (Melbourne’s Malthouse, from June 12, Sydney Theatre Company from July 9) and Jonathan Tollins’s Buyer and Cellar (Melbourne Theatre Company, from October 30) are tours de force requiring actors of great agility, but in very different ways.

Buyer and Cellar is a love-in between an irrepressible, highly indiscreet man and an audience avid for what the Americans call dish. The actor – at MTC it will be the delectable Ash Flanders – plays an under-used actor, Alex, who finds unusual employment with Barbra Streisand. Babs! Could anything be more heavenly?!! Buyer and Cellar amusingly satisfies our seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity culture but there are some darker threads too, woven through with the lightest of touches. Everything depends, of course, on the charm of the performer playing Alex, given that we’re in his company for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Michael Urie originated the part and became quite the celebrity himself in New York. Rather delicious really.

I am surprised to see on the Malthouse website that Love and Information will feature eight actors. The production I saw used 15 and they were all pretty busy, given that Churchill’s play has more than 100 characters. In an interval-less two hours it presents more than 50 short scenes, some lasting only seconds. You can imagine what it’s like backstage. Churchill touches acutely on the variety of ways in which communication happens and also what it contains. Information can be personal, scientific, mathematical, political, mediated, terrifying, baffling, consoling, right, wrong and so many other things. The production I saw at the Minetta Lane Theatre was first staged at London’s Royal Court in 2012 and was dazzlingly set in a stark white tiled cube that was completely blacked out at the end of each scene to allow nifty changes. I will be fascinated to see what solution Malthouse and STC’s designer, David Fleischer, comes up with.

Three New York highlights:

Shakespeare’s Globe in Twelfth Night and Richard III, both starring the protean Mark Rylance: In the first he was an Olivia in great emotional disarray but able to snap into razor-sharp acuity when needed. He operated at the highest level of artifice but the glittering surface was like a protective shield for the most delicate of emotions. Breathtaking. In Richard III, he was a ratty-looking, manipulative, weasely murderer protected, for the moment, by his powerful position and a psychopathic belief in himself. I will carry with me for a long time the scene in which Richard asks a lackey to put out the news that Lady Anne “is sick and like to die”. Anne – Joseph Timms – was standing beside Richard, who sat on his throne and jovially put his arm around his wife and squeezed her waist. The gesture would seem affectionate, if not for his words and if not for the rag doll-like quiescence with which Anne allowed herself to be cuddled, all the while standing upright, dazed, but still noble. Tremendous stuff.

American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield: This was a production you could see repeatedly and one it’s hard to imagine being bettered. [I wrote this for my blog long before seeing Belvoir’s recent production. I’ll stick by my view.] The director was John Tiffany, whose riveting Black Watch we saw at the Sydney Festival a few years back and Stephen Hoggett, who choreographed Black Watch, was movement director. In this production Tennessee Williams’s memory play was illuminated by so many delicate, resonant, surprising, beautiful and heart-breaking touches: Bob Crowley’s spare set of hexagonal platforms that floated in a dark sea, the skeletal fire escape stairs that diminished in size as they disappeared upwards, the one glass animal that represented Laura’s collection, the way in which Laura made her entrance and exit, the sudden pull of memory that drew Tom into the past, the tenderness and restraint of the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller … well, one could go on and on. The performances, all of them, were exquisite – Jones, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller suspended time and place.

Two London highlights:

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear: Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre wasn’t entirely transcendent but Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest of all classical actors and he didn’t disappoint. The moments of poignancy as Lear realises he is losing his mind and has thrown away everything of value were devastating. I was sitting quite close to the stage and to see the depths of Lear’s folly, madness and final clarity of vision revealed so piercingly was an experience I won’t forget. And one has to give it to the National Theatre. A company that fields for Lear a retinue of about 25 convincingly riotous soldiers is a company prepared to go the extra mile to achieve a director’s vision. The cast numbered 51 in all.

King Charles III, a “future history” written by Mike Bartlett, at the Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold: Queen Elizabeth II has just died and the formality of Charles’s coronation will follow in due time. But he is already the monarch and must assume the responsibilities of the role immediately. What happens immediately is a clash between the King and his government over a bill to restrict the press. Charles refuses to give royal assent and stubbornly sets off a constitutional crisis that ricochets across the country. There’s a tank out the front of Buckingham Palace before you know it. Prince Harry wants out of the royal family, William is forced into a mediation role and Kate – well, there are exceptionally interesting developments there.

Bartlett treads a sure path between satire and tragedy while using Shakespearean forms and echoes to enrich and amuse. Much is in blank verse and there are references galore, albeit often glancing, to Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Henry IV. This framework lets Bartlett switch from laughter to tears in an instant and to give deep context to the discussion about the role of the monarchy.

For Charles (superbly given life by Tim Piggott-Smith), if he is not able to follow his conscience on individual matters, does he have any power at all? Others have a longer view about the way in which the monarchy can wield influence. As you can imagine, seeing this play with a British audience was a bracing experience.

King Charles III transferred to the West End where it runs until the end of January.

Tomorrow: Opera and musical theatre

Dance Better at Parties

Sydney Theatre Company, April 9

DAVE would appear to have come to the wrong place. The ugly suburban dance school with its poo-brown floor and unforgiving fluoros offers private lessons in the rumba, tango, paso doble and other glittering ballroom arts. You buy a block of 10, sign here for direct debit, initial the injury waiver please, and at the end of the course you might be eligible for your bronze and be invited to move up to the next level. (Not much chance of anyone failing, you would think.)

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

But Dave’s ambitions aren’t as lofty as that. He just wants to be less awkward when he goes out, or so he says. What can stumbling through the paso doble do for a bloke who is, quite frankly, a pretty ordinary example of physique and co-ordination?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Gideon Obarzanek’s deceptively simple, deeply compassionate two-hander Dance Better at Parties is his first production as an associate at Sydney Theatre Company but it’s been brewing for a decade. In 2004 Obarzanek had an idea for a documentary about men and movement that turned into a dance work for his company Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties. For some reason Obarzanek leaves that step out of his director’s note for Dance Better at Parties, moving straight on from research for the documentary to his current play.

The dance piece was important, however, in that it was clear which story – there were five – audiences responded to most. One man’s reason for seeking out dance lessons gave Obarzanek his title. “I want to dance better at parties,” the man told the choreographer, but Obarzanek realised  this was code for something much more fundamental: the need for contact, the need to be touched. That one story is the inspiration for Dance Better at Parties.

If you want to say the unsayable, then dance is the way to do it. Dance Better at Parties shows how perilous it can be – where a hand goes, how bodies fit together and how closely – but how potentially exhilarating and liberating. So when Dave (Steve Rodgers) turns up for his lessons with lithe, lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Nabben) there’s a minefield of emotional tumult and sexual tension roiling under the surface conversation about what foot goes where and how to achieve a satisfactorily rolling infinity figure with the hips.

“Take off the shirt, take off the shirt,” Rachel cries enthusiastically, as a way of describing a sweeping arm movement across the chest. Yes, you can see how there might be an undercurrent or two.

Rodgers, who is arguably the country’s most simpatico actor, is funny, heart-breaking and dignified as Dave persists against the odds. Rodgers isn’t a natural mover, bless him, which is as it should be. But when Dave cuts loose and surrenders to the music, he is magnificent. Relative newcomer Nabben delicately handles the difficult nuances of Rachel’s relationship with her clients and delivers Jessica Prince’s choreography as if born to it. (She seems not to have been; her biography doesn’t list any dance training.)

Obarzanek steers the story with immense restraint and knows when to let the dance do the talking. He lets a great deal hang in the air, leaving much up to intuition. For that reason some in the audience on opening night found Dance Better at Parties a little thin and unresolved. I loved its refusal to spell everything out.

There are one or two clunky moments (Dave’s personal revelations don’t fit entirely neatly into Obarzanek’s structure), but never a false or exploitative one. I was quite teary at the end. I blame Steve Rodgers.

***

STC is billing Dance Better at Parties as Obarzanek’s ‘’first foray into text-based theatre”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Best known as the founder and artistic director of Melbourne-based Chunky Move – a post he left last year – Obarzanek has often used text in his work. Often his work could be put as easily in the box marked Theatre as the one marked Dance.

Take his 2010 solo Faker, the one that brought Obarzanek back to performing after a long absence from the stage. He had a lot to say, literally, in that one. Or Two-Faced Bastard (2008), made with Lucy Guerin, also a choreographer who uses text liberally. Or I Want to Dance Better at Parties.

Contemporary choreographers have for decades used text as one of their tools. Theatre has been a little slower in getting what dance and heightened movement can add to the mix and it can be something of an acquired taste for audiences whose experience is mostly confined to theatre.

Guerin’s Human Interest Story, for instance, was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season in Sydney.

An aussietheatre website review of a Belvoir performance noted this:

Obviously contemporary dance isn’t for everyone, I asked a fellow theatregoer on the way out what she thought and she briskly replied, “Well, it’s an early night.”

The night I attended Human Interest Story the audience by and large seemed interested in and intrigued by it. There was a sense of close attention being paid; the atmosphere felt keener than usual. I attributed this to the audience’s unfamiliarity with dance.

Human Interest Story is closer to the dance end of the spectrum than the theatre end; the opposite is true in the work of UK company Frantic Assembly, whose hyper-active boxing-world drama Beautiful Burnout (Frantic Assembly with National Theatre of Scotland) was part of the Sydney and Perth festivals in the early months of 2012.

In the falling-somewhere-in-the-middle category is a work such as Trust, seen in 2011 at the Perth International Arts Festival. It was co-created for Berlin’s Schaubuhne by German playwright Falk Richter and Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk – now artistic director of Chunky Move following Obarzanek’s desire to move on after 16 years.

The same names do keep coming up.

In the past couple of years Australian theatre has been opening up to dance than – or perhaps it might be more exact to say that the work of Obarzanek, Guerin and Kate Champion, previously put into the Dance basket, is now being seen in a broader light.

This is partly due to new leadership at some important companies. At Belvoir, for instance, when designer Ralph Myers took over as the company’s artistic director at the beginning of 2011 he came with a CV that included the design of Obarzanek and Guerin’s Two-Faced Bastard. In 2012 he programmed works that had a strong movement element – Roslyn Oades’s exceptional verbatim theatre piece about boxing, I’m Your Man; Food, a lovely play written by Steve Rodgers and directed by Rodgers with Champion (and now up for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award) – and Guerin’s Conversation Piece.

As the title suggests, Conversation Piece is strong on talk, and it wasn’t simply programmed by Belvoir; it was co-produced with Belvoir and later seen at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival. Human Interest Story was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season. STC commissioned Never Did Me any Harm from Champion’s Force Majeure company and it was part of the Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne festivals of 2012.

You can see from this list, then, that there’s a rather small pool of talent swirling about. But at least it is moving.

Dance Better at Parties continues until May 11. Sydney Theatre Company’s website advises there is a limited number of tickets remaining. Some are released on the day of performance.

Food can be seen at La Boite, Brisbane, April 17-27.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 11.