It’s a wrap

Trisha Brown Dance Company

Trisha Brown Dance Company. From All Angles: Pure Movement Program 1, October 23; Early Works, October 26 (afternoon); Pure Movement Program 2, October 26 (evening)

Chunky Move, Complexity of Belonging, October 9

Heiner Goebbels, When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing, October 26 (afternoon)

The Trouble with Harry, October 23 (afternoon)

TRISHA Brown’s dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, is intellectually rigorous and highly technical. Her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. And yet there is one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

A selection of Early Works – mostly from the 1970s, most performed in silence – held an audience spellbound on a beautiful Melbourne afternoon as the Brown company did balancing things with lengths of wood (various Sticks pieces), used one another as counterweights (Leaning Duets), were arranged and rearranged around the space without missing a beat (Group Primary with Movers) and, with a complete lack of showiness, revealed the virtuosity in the apparently simple (Accumulation, Spanish Dance). The dancers, who wore plain white trousers and tops, were barefoot, warm, sweet, composed and serene. The program lasted only an hour but time seemed to be suspended. It was an unforgettable, radiant experience that took us to the bedrock of Brown’s art.

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

The two Pure Movement programs, staged in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse, covered work from the 1970s to 2011. The wide range is deliberate, as TBDC is part way through an international celebration of Brown’s career and influence: the choreographer, who turns 78 shortly, announced her retirement about two years ago. While there are no narrative influences in the work, a key ingredient is the sensuality and sumptuousness of the body in motion and stasis, even in a work as muscular, angular, sculptural and stern as Newark (Niweweorce) (1987) – the only piece to appear on both programs. Presumably for practical reasons to do with international touring Donald Judd’s backdrops for Newark were not seen, although Robert Rauschenberg’s diaphanous set for Set and Reset came along for the ride (Brown really did mix it with the greats of contemporary art). When Newark was performed in New York early last year the drops were described in The New York Times as “rising and falling at different depths of the stage and so redefining the space, each in a single different primary color”. I was sorry not to experience this aspect of the piece.

I was more sorry, though, not to see Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) twice or, indeed, on a continuous loop. It was on the first program and was a swirl of impulses and connections as four women and two men grouped, regrouped or went their own ways to music from Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta. The complexities and incremental changes were mesmerising, as were repeated details such as Jamie Scott draping herself briefly across Olsi Gjeci’s back, or the two of them holding hands for just a moment. Scott, by the way, proved herself the heroine of the season by being quietly charismatic in everything she did: the solo If you couldn’t see me (1994) in which she never faces the audience; the glorious solo Accumulation (1971), in which gestures and movements build one upon the other until the body is fully and gorgeously engaged while the feet never leave the ground; as the instigator of Spanish Dance, a sexy quintet for women to the sound of Bob Dylan; and in just about everything else.

On a local note, it was splendid to see Rogues (2011), a duet made for and with Australian dancer and choreographer Lee Serle and TBDC dancer Neal Beasley, who was also outstanding in a variety of works. Brown was a Rolex mentor to Serle, who is now back home. He (tall) and Beasley (short) danced side by side, constantly in motion and constantly in sync with each other’s presence.

I had not seen Brown’s work in the flesh although have seen much that’s influenced by her, unfortunately often in a too-dry, overly introspective way. The juiciness of Brown’s dance and her dancers is a delight, as is the sense of connection with the audience, even in a conventional theatre setting. Brown’s retirement means her company is in the process of defining how her pioneering work will be preserved, a situation the companies of Merce Cunningham (seemingly successfully), Martha Graham (disastrously) and other ground-breakers have faced. This is a delicate matter for TBDC but it brought Melbourne Festival audiences a great boon.

The Brown retrospective ended the Melbourne Festival. First up in early October was Complexity of Belonging, a large-scale dance-theatre work from Chunky Move. It was fascinating and somewhat depresseing to see how Complexity of Belonging side-stepped the promise of its title to offer something rather shallow. Talk about first-world problems.

Chunky Move's Complexity of Belonging

Chunky Move’s Complexity of Belonging

The co-creators, Chunky Move artistic director Anouk Van Dijk and Falk Richter, director in residence at Berlin’s Schaubuhne, have worked together on four earlier projects, one of which was Trust, seen at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2011. It too was about a first-world problem, but one of great resonance. As I wrote at the time, “Made in 2009, Trust was born among the ruins of international finance and sees in that collapse a crisis at the individual level. The lack of honesty and transparency in big business is mirrored in personal relationships: mistrust is rife.” In this work movement emerged powerfully and persuasively as being as relevant to the thesis as the text. This was not the case with Complexity of Belonging, where it felt added on.

The wide Sumner stage at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, home to Melbourne Theatre Company, was dominated by a huge cyclorama with a photographic image of open sky and low-lying land (Robert Cousins designed the set). The Australian Outback, one imagines, even though Complexity of Belonging was quickly established as being entirely urban in nature, dealing with a set of well-off, articulate city-dwellers.

The program noted only that the image, Big Sky, was by Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, whose website describes him as a London-based “architect and motion designer”. Intriguingly, all the early online results that come up with his name relate to a project he carried out in Australia a few years ago called GravityONE: A choreography for militarised airspace. Lugojan-Ghenciu calls it an architectural work and an animation, and the description for it starts this way: “The remote territories of the Australian Never Never are anything but empty. The history of these landscapes is one of nuclear testing, rocket launches and black military technologies.”

Complexity of Belonging went nowhere near such dark thoughts. Here the big sky was just a big sky. It was instantly legible shorthand for the vast, empty Australian interior and stood as a metaphor for the feelings of separation, loneliness and otherness expressed by the decidedly metropolitan characters. Except that it felt like an Australia viewed through a decidedly European lens that sees this place and its people as exotic, in a superficial way. You know, “Australia, it’s so far away.” Well, not if you live here.

Van Dijk and Richter write of their collaborations that the concept begins “from the same central question: what do we currently observe happening in our own relationships and in the broader social context?” In Complexity of Belonging the social context wasn’t at all broad. There was some talk about gay marriage not being legal in Australia, some observations about race (relatively mild), an unpleasant reference to the recent Malaysian Airlines disaster (the one in our hemisphere), digs at our “no worries, howya goin’” discourse, and a sentimental co-option of Aboriginal thought regarding the nature of time.

At 90 minutes Complexity of Belonging was overlong, but more pertinently I found it tedious. The Brisbane Festival is a co-presenter, so I assume it will be restaged there and potentially elsewhere. Will there be some rethinking? I do hope so.

My other Melbourne Festival events (this year the tally was shamefully low, but you can’t do everything) were Heiner Goebbels’s When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing and the new Lachlan Philpott drama The Trouble with Harry.

When the Mountain is monumental music-theatre in construction and intent, but fell short for me in practice. The 39 girls and young women of Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica were wondrous performers, singing complex music from a wide range of traditions while enacting rituals of discovery and growth. The score included Schonberg, Brahms, classical Indian (extraordinary), contemporary and central European vocal music; the text was taken from writings of, among others, Marina Abramovic, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ian McEwan. It was certainly eclectic.

I admired the concept and the skill greatly. The young women’s poise and virtuosity were a delight. But admiration failed to blossom into whole-hearted immersion in the performance. While spoken texts were delivered in English, song texts were not made available – a great lack, given the centrality of the music. I felt there was a huge part of the performance denied me.

Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry has been given a deeply absorbing premiere by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. It is a multilayered affair – a slice of Sydney history; a true-crime story; an elegy for an unconventional relationship hiding in plain sight within conventional society; and a pungent evocation of early 20th-century working-class life. Most of all it is a humane reclamation of Harry Crawford’s story. The closing images are heart-breaking.

Crawford (Maude Davey), born Eugenia Falleni, lived for many years as a married man and was convicted of the murder of his wife Annie (Caroline Lee). Naturally the trial was a sensation but Philpott’s interest lies far from there. He rescues Harry from the one-note notoriety and gives him a complex individuality. The robust poeticism of Philpott’s writing, matched by Alyson Campbell’s fluid direction, gives The Trouble with Harry a slightly hallucinatory quality, as does the decision to relay the sound to the audience via individual headsets. The effect is simultaneously highly personal and other-worldly.

The wonderful cast of six is completed by Elizabeth Nabben as Harry’s daughter Josephine; Daniel Last as Annie’s son, also named Harry; and Emma Palmer and Dion Mills as narrators and other characters. Very much recommended.

The Trouble with Harry continues at Northcote Town Hall until October 9.

Miss Julie

Belvoir, Sydney, August 29

WHEN Simon Stone is attracted to a text, anything can happen. In this he is reminiscent of Barrie Kosky, whose ferocious intelligence and unswerving commitment to a highly personal vision has given us some of the country’s most memorable and challenging theatre and opera. It’s impossible to leave a Kosky production feeling indifferent. One may be unconvinced (Opera Australia’s Nabucco) or transported (the revelatory Vienna Schauspielhaus production of Poppea seen in Sydney in 2009), but not untouched. And so it is with Stone, although his work operates at a cooler temperature. On the transporting side there is The Wild Duck, “after Ibsen”, which he co-wrote with Chris Ryan and directed; and his adaptation (with Ryan, Thomas Henning and Mark Winter) and direction of Thyestes, “after Seneca”. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past decade. On the unconvincing side of Stone’s ledger lies, for me, Miss Julie, written by Stone “after Strindberg”. I’ll come to my reasons later.

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

All those “after”s reflect one of Stone’s greatest interests – using an established theatre text as a jumping-off point, a choice that sets up an intricate and fluid set of expectations. These expectations will be coloured by one’s thoughts about translation, adaptation, appropriation, homage, “inspired by”, and what fidelity to an original source really means and whether it matters anyway. (A big argument right there!) You may ponder whether the piece you saw should still bear the title Ibsen or Strindberg or Seneca gave their play when Stone’s version looks and sounds so different. To which Stone may respond – and I’m just guessing here – that the piece feels the same at a fundamental level, and that’s the crucial point. (There’s probably a marketing issue here too. The Wild Duck is a great name with pretty good recognition in theatre circles; Little Eyolf not so much, hence 2009’s The Only Child, which was terrific.)

Delving down a little further, I’m interested in the degree to which audience members would be familiar with the texts just mentioned, and others like them. I think it would be fair to say few people, if any, would have read the source plays in their original language. Some keen theatre-goers may have boned up by reading a translation, but this is an area of deep subtlety. A small example: I have two translations of Miss Julie, dating from my long-gone university days. In Strindberg’s startlingly misogynistic introduction to the play he writes about “the half-woman, the man-hater”, and both my translations put it exactly that way. Warming to his theme, Strindberg says of this woman: “The type implies degeneration…” (Translation by Elizabeth Sprigge, 1955.) Or he says: “She is synonymous with corruption.” (Translation by Michael Meyer, 1964.) I think there’s a significant difference between the two assertions. The second is much more active, determined and implacable, and degeneration and corruption don’t mean the same thing anyway. It’s possible more modern translations may give other nuances. Of course Stone is not offering what we might call a straightforward translation of these plays, but what we know, or think we know, of them affects how we receive the Stone version, particularly if it’s still called The Wild Duck. Or Miss Julie.

I acknowledge there are probably many people who couldn’t care less how a production came to be or what it’s called, as long as they feel they’ve had a good night in the theatre. But for me, going to see a Stone production involves a great many micro-adjustments of perception and attitude; an intellectual balancing act. This is invariably stimulating, although there can be a concurrent diminution of emotional engagement, depending on the degree to which I feel the re-versioning is successful – a shorthand word for about a million things coming together to my satisfaction that may be completely different from your million things.

In Stone’s productions of Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there was an intriguing use of what we might call translation. The words stayed the same – well, Stone initially chopped off the final scene of Salesman but had to reinstate it when Arthur Miller’s estate got cranky – but both were played with Australian accents. This was quite a provocative directorial decision, given the status of Miller and Tennessee Williams. Not only are they giants of 20th century American playwriting, they are taken to be writers of the American experience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof worked for me (mostly) in a way Death of a Salesman did not. If you’re interested, I reviewed the Williams in March.

Stone’s version of Miss Julie, directed by Leticia Caceres, puts Strindberg’s drama of sex and class into a contemporary Australian setting. The unseen 19th century nobleman becomes an absent politician on the brink of the prime ministership. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his driver, doubling as a minder for Julie (Taylor Ferguson), who is left at home with the help while her father is away. Jean’s long-suffering girlfriend Christine (Blazey Best) is a housekeeper who cooks. Stone’s text absorbs a great deal of Strindberg’s detail: as the play opens Christine is seen in the kitchen cooking; Jean describes a party at which Julie forces him to dance with her; Julie has a boyfriend, to whom she metes out some physical punishment; the boss’s wine is commandeered; and so on in a multitude of ways. We even see for a time a pair of Julie’s shoes eye-catchingly placed against a wall of Robert Cousins’s clean, lean set – an echo of the master’s boots in Strindberg that, according to the original stage directions, are placed in a prominent position. They are there to remind us of the power imbalance.

Looked at in one light, Stone has carefully followed the original. In the overall arc of the drama, however, there are changes and emphases that shift the central concern of Strindberg’s play. I watched the Belvoir production as if with double vision: on one level seeing Strindberg’s play and on another failing to recognise Strindberg’s thesis.

Stone’s all-important decision was to make Julie just 16 rather than in her mid-20s. To underscore the unsuitability, to put it mildly, of what happens, Jean is no longer 30 but closer to 40. There’s plenty of rather grubby sexual warfare but Strindberg’s class-struggle theme can find little room to breathe here, swept away by the nasty little cat-and-mouse games (Jean and Julie alternating as feline and rodent) skittering around in front of us. It’s not easy to find a convincing way of presenting as tragedy contemporary class differences and aspirations, and Stone hasn’t found it here.

Julie is a clever, damaged, neglected, manipulative handful; Jean is an idiot who, as directed by Caceres, one simply cannot believe in. Would a rich and powerful politician hire a man so lacking in polish? Would such a man have ever been employed as a sommelier in “one of the best hotels in London” (now there’s a place that gets class divisions)? Where is the man who, in Strindberg, has educated himself towards becoming a gentleman? And would Julie’s father, so necessarily concerned for his reputation, have left her in Jean’s care? An older Julie and a wilier Jean would have made infinitely more sense to me.

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

My first thought was that Stone’s Jean is a fantasist; has to be. His behaviour in the second act supports that idea to a degree, although if he is a fantasist that casts doubt on anything he says or does, which is not useful in this play. Strindberg’s Jean, on the other hand, has prepared himself most carefully for his dreams of betterment. He’s a very astute man. Stone in some ways appears to align his Jean with Strindberg’s Julie and vice versa, but that only further muddies the picture.

In Stone’s writing Julie’s extreme youth makes her wild oscillations of behaviour explicable, but she is too immature to have meaningful control of her destiny. Her actions also eliminate another important idea in Strindberg, that of honour. She’s just a mixed-up kid, flailing around. And the ending, while theatrically effective, just doesn’t ring true. Julie might be running a bit wild, but this? I don’t accept it – although others obviously do, given the many highly laudatory reviews Miss Julie has received.

For Belvoir and Melbourne’s Malthouse next year Stone turns his hand to a subject I imagine few would have predicted. A version of Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy The Philadelphia Story, better known by many in its musical theatre form, High Society, will be “created by” Stone, who will also direct. The unusual “created by” tag suggests that not much of the original will remain and that jibes sent in Stone’s direction about authorship of revised classics have hit home. Belvoir’s season launch material promises a “radical new lens” on Barry’s play, a light entertainment involving a wealthy woman, her fiancé, her former husband and a newspaperman. To date Stone has mostly walked the dark side of the street, so the really radical thing would seem to be the promise of lots of fun and fabulousness. I look forward to it.

All of which is a very long way of saying Stone is someone who can make people care about what he does, argue about it, puzzle over it, attack it, defend it, love it, hate it, have an attitude towards it…

This makes him one of the current theatre’s most valuable assets.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney

Belvoir St Theatre, February 27

WHEN theatre practitioners talk about putting Australian voices on stage they tend to be talking about Australian plays and Australian content – what else would they mean? Well, at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, artistic director Ralph Myers and resident director Simon Stone take it a step further by preferring to use the Australian accent on stage, no matter where the play may be set. There were no upper-class British elocutions to be heard in Myers’s production last year of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, no American cadences in Stone’s Death of a Salesman (he unwisely also deleted the epilogue and had to reinstate it, but that’s a separate matter).

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Now Stone offers Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without the perfume of southern accents. It’s a bold call, and not one that persuades unconditionally, but nevertheless the decision is all of a piece with a keen desire to make an audience see important texts anew. To hear them anew. No Tennessee Williams play was harmed in the making of this production. (We may also assume that when Stone puts Hamlet on the Belvoir stage later in the year he won’t ask Toby Schmitz to play the Dane in Elizabethan English.)

There’s a Brechtian element here. It is disconcerting to hear Willy Loman talk about upstate New York towns and sound exactly like Colin Friels. It is jolting when, in Private Lives, Elyot says women need to be struck regularly, like gongs, and to see and hear Schmitz as a present-day Sydney lad about town. And it is deeply dislocating to hear Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as if it were set on a big property somewhere in rural Australia.

Such a provocation is stimulating and challenging – if one gains more than one loses. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I give Stone the win. I’d like to see the production again and think I’d get more from it on another viewing, which is pretty much my criterion for a successful evening.

But still.

I think it’s relevant that on the night I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the sounds of the American South frequently trembled on actors’ lips before being suppressed. Those sounds, so soft and stretched and swirled in the mouth, are at one with the rhythms of the text and have an almost palpable sensuality along with intimations of decay. Think of the sentimental references to Brick’s alma mater Ole Miss; that’s as mushy a phrase as you can find. And “mendacity” – the key word in the play – begs to be heard drawn out into four distinct, deliberate, southern syllables.

No wonder the actors appeared to be attracted strongly to this way of speaking. Embedded in the very sounds are layers of meaning and yearning. Without the accent Williams’s words no longer seem quite as sumptuous, and with that slightly slack quality that makes one think of licentiousness.

Does that sound like stereotyping? Sure does, which is possibly one of the reasons Stone wanted to do away with such a rich element of the play. The ruthless excision of that element forces the audience out of an ole plantation, “I wish I was in Dixie” mentality. Interestingly, the new Broadway revival goes hell for leather in that direction it would seem. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of January 17 notes “it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere” and that the sound design includes snatches of servants singing spirituals and work songs – “Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton”. Lordy indeed.

I can understand Stone wanting to run at speed from that kind of presentation for an Australian audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be mined for its application to the here and now.

Need, greed, manipulation and the coruscating exercise of power within a rich dysfunctional family lie at the heart of the play. Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) is dying and doesn’t know it; older son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his fecund wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) think they should take over; both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Lynette Curran) prefer formerly golden younger son Brick (Ewen Leslie); Brick is trying to drink his way out of a life he despises and his wife Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) will do anything to hang on to what she’s managed to claw for herself. Meet the family.

As they go around and around on Robert Cousins’s revolving set with its rainbow curtain of streamers, everyone except Brick vies for ascendency in the shadow of Big Daddy’s demise. McKenzie is a wonderfully angular Maggie, and her tense skittering about at the play’s opening shows exactly what kind of cat she is: fast, wily, hungry, not quite enough meat on her bones. Napier will be a fine Big Daddy once he gets off the book (he was a late inclusion in the cast due when Anthony Phelan fell ill and had to do some scenes script in hand on the night the media attended) and Curran’s Big Mama, by turns vivacious and clingy, is vividly conceived.

But it’s Leslie’s handsome, desperate, disintegrating Brick who is at the core of this production. In a way he’s the only one who no longer wants anything, except a drink. He hates the tawdriness of it all – the loss of his shiny youth, his football prowess, the way in which his intense connection with his friend Skipper, now dead, is cheapened by everyone. The family all talk about the nature of the friendship and no one seems to care too much about what it was, as long as Brick can get it up long enough to impregnate Maggie. Mendacity rules, as the final image of the production proves. You could weep for Brick’s utter desolation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at Belvoir St Theatre until April 7 and transfers to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 10-21, 2013.