Under Siege

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance. Brisbane Festival, September 27. Melbourne Festival until October 8.

Yang Liping’s exquisite Under Siege is like the richest of sauces, distilled and reduced until only the essentials remain.

The setting is China about 2000 years ago as one dynasty, the Han, bloodily replaces another. Yang’s episodic, impressionistic work strips away the immensely complicated politics to arrive at a truth as old as time and new as today. Two men with great resources at their command vie for power. One wins; the other dies.

The situation could not be more stark nor the depiction of it more sumptuous. The senses are ravished by a heady mix of contemporary dance, martial arts, traditional Chinese music, Peking Opera and poetic set and costume designs by the masterly Tim Yip.

Under Siege 06 by DING Yi Jie

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance’s Under Siege. Photo: Ding Yi Jie

Hanging over the stage is American-Chinese artist Beili Liu’s shimmering forest of scissors, inspired by her installation The Mending Project. Hundreds of blades in undulating rows glint in shades of grey and gold as lights play on them. The cutting imagery is echoed by a woman who sits at the side of the stage throughout the performance, fashioning huge Chinese characters from mounds of white paper and holding them up to announce characters or scenes. In Under Siege beauty and death are close companions.

Anonymous combatants clash forcefully and whirl through the air excitingly but are also capable of great delicacy in gliding runs and undulating spines. Their affiliation isn’t clear but it’s not important. A soldier is a soldier. On which side doesn’t matter.

The real action lies with a small group of individuals to whom Yang gives distinctively different movement qualities. Most unforgettable is the concubine Yu Ji, danced by Hu Shenyuan – a man – with extraordinary fluidity and sensuality. For Yu Ji’s first solo Hu is almost naked, quite clearly a male dancer in keeping with Peking Opera tradition but without any of the trappings that might make him appear to be impersonating a woman. Yu Ji is deeply attached to the aristocratic, charismatic Xiang Yu and her fate is bound to his completely. Hu’s plasticity and refinement are enthralling, otherworldly even, and yet lucidly convey this worman’s interior life.

Under Siege 03 Photographer DING Yi Jie

Yang Liping Contemporary Dance in Under Siege. Photo: Ding Yi Jie

Later, dressed in red, Yu Ji has heart-catchingly tender duets with her doomed lover, danced with much dignity and almost magical physical powers by He Shang, whose standing backflips are performed without apparent preparation. The stockier Gong Zhonghui plays his adversary, Liu Bang, with earthier traits that are sometimes close to buffoonery but with a dangerous edge. A general, Han Xin (danced by Xiao Fuchun), is described as unappreciated and his divided loyalties are shown literally when he is given a sinister, black-clad doppelganger (Ou Yangtian).

Guo Yi’s magisterial narrator speak in the swooping tones familiar from Peking Opera and even when it’s clear he has rather more to say than the surtitles offer, his presence is compelling. On the subject of surtitles, they give a welcome assist to non-Mandarin speakers and those not entirely familiar with Chinese history. (When Under Siege was performed in London last year this help wasn’t available. Much criticism ensued.)

It’s still a good idea to do a little bit of homework to get full value from Under Siege. Or you can sit back and let this extravagantly beautiful, intoxicating experience take you wherever it will.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 29.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

Nelken_6_Paul_White_Credit_Alexandros_Sarakasidis

Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

Fase_Anne_Van_Aerschot_5

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet_cr. Martin Tulinius_07

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

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.