Tuesday, 2 January 2007

With Acknowledgements to Orpheus

With 2006 now irrevocably consigned to history, I think it's safe to look back. Please forgive my indulgence as I sacrifice happiness with Eurydice and cast my gaze back on the 2006 theatrical year. That's if it wasn't all an illusion conjured up by the gods all along...

I saw more theatre/dance/performance etc. than ever this year: 168 shows by my count. This means I managed to squeeze in 50 odd more than I saw in 2005 which was an exceptional year - in fact, the best year of theatre I have experienced. Consequently, my feeling is that 2006 wasn't quite as good a theatre year as 2005. However, in compiling my favourite shows of 2006 I have ended up with a formidable list. Perhaps the sheer number of shows I saw had a diluting effect with interesting shows being more widely dispersed among the ho-hum shows than in previous years. Nevertheless, the retrospect I've afforded myself reveals 2006 to have been a solid year with many highlights.

In terms of programming, the companies/production houses that consistently offered me the most interesting and satisfying theatrical experiences this year were Malthouse Theatre and the Arts House. Each offered over 20 productions in the multiple seasons they programmed.

The Malthouse consolidated its 2005 re-branding and continued to offer audiences a diverse definition of what theatre is. Whilst the most cutting edge stuff is still being made elsewhere, the Malthouse is doing a very good job of keeping audiences up to date, offering them a taste of what's to come and expanding their palates. Apart from a couple of shows in their And the Coloured Girls Go... cabaret season, I saw every production at the Malthouse this year and the hit rate was very high. Nothing was less than good. Most were very, very good with Eldorado, Construction of the Human Heart, Headlock and The Yellow Wallpaper all being exceptional.

With the addition of the multi-spaced Meat Market as a performance venue, the Arts House was enabled to produce a much larger program than was possible with just the North Melbourne Town Hall. Its art in a dry climate season this year offered Melbourne audiences a broad example of hybrid and multi-artform performance works by both new and established artists: local, national and international. The expanded program filled a gap in Melbourne's landscape by offering a home and regular exposure to works which experiment with form, content and foreground contemporary arts practices not unlike the Performance Space in Sydney. Highlights included From a Distance and Wages of Spin by Version 1.0, Twelfth Floor by Tanja Liedtke, Singularity by Chunky Move, Slanting Into the Void by Peepshow Inc., Objects for Meditation by William Yang and Exercises in Happiness by Panther. Truth be told there was very little I saw at the Arts House that disappointed. That's not to say that everything was perfect - certainly not. Not even the shows I've mentioned as highlights. But the Arts House venues are ones I happily visit because I know the shows they house will have enough good/new/interesting ideas (creative, performative, philosophical, political etc.) to engage me without being destroyed by any flaws in the work. The Arts House's contribution to Melbourne's artistic landscape was acknowledged by a large presence at the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

This year's MIAF once again offered a wonderful array of performances. Whilst it didn't quite reach the heights of the 2005 festival - the benchmark festival in my book - it managed to provide me with my two favourite shows of the year: Tragedia Endogonidia BR. #04 Brussels by Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio and Pichet Klunchun and Myself by Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun. One can only hope that all the ludicrous criticism the festival attracted doesn't effect on the quality of future programming.

Some commentators used Festival Melbourne 2006 (the cultural component of the Commonwealth Games) as an example of the successful festival. I disagree. The festival organisers produced a great populist event but it was difficult to find much beyond the feelgood. Which is, of course, not to say that art shouldn't make you feel good but a major opportunity was lost to question the notion of the Commonwealth and investigate the consequences for many countries of colonisation and the British Empire. Whilst it was impossible to see everything in the enormous program, I tried to see as much as possible. The only shows that struck me as more than mere spectacle and actually engaged with issues of the Commonwealth (if only by default) were The House of the Holy Afro by Third World Bunfight and 9 Drawings for Projection by William Kentridge. Both were by South African artists and both dealt with apartheid and race relations - a result of colonisation. Other works that didn't directly deal with the Commonwealth but were successful were all Australian. Two older works, The Bells by 5 Angry Men and Urban Dream Capsule and a new Legs on the Wall show: On the Case.

It was left to Next Wave to dissect the Commonwealth Games for us. It was themed 'Empire Games' (the old name of the Commonwealth Games) and a portion of it's program was official sanctioned as part of the youth program of Festival Melbourne 2006. Most successfully, the aforementioned From a Distance by Version 1.0 (which, strangely but predictably, was not in the sanctioned part of the program) pithily investigated Australian-ness and un-Australian-ness via our sports mad image and the Sally Robbins 'no-row' incident. The other works that impressed (and had nothing to do with the Commonwealth Games) were Operation by Blood Policy, new!shop by Spat & Loogie, Y. by (fellow blogger) Ming-Zhu Hii and Pink Denim in Manhattan by Jacklyn Bassanelli.

There were of course many one-off works of note this year, not part of a larger program, but I will address those in the list that follows. I have for the last few years created a top ten list of my favourite shows of that year. As with any list of this type it is completely subjective and ultimately meaningless. But I love making a good list and the challenge of cramming all the good shows I've seen into a recognisable form such as a top ten list is kinda fun but also very difficult. There is a loose set of criteria I apply but essentially placing the shows is an arbitrary exercise. So, for whatever its value, here is my list for 2006.

10. Twelfth Floor (Tanja Liedtke) / Headlock (Kage/Malthouse Theatre)
These two works are tied because they were both dance-theatre, were both on at the same time and I unexpectedly saw both twice. Twelfth Floor cleverly and beautifully explored human connection and the things that stand in our way through the metaphor of an institution. Headlock presented us masculinity through dance in what was an exhilarating and heartbreaking experience. It featured many wonderful sequences but a solo by Byron Perry sticks out for me as the best male dance performance of the year.

9. I La Galigo (Robert Wilson)
Robert Wilson, his collaborators and huge cast created a hypnotising epic that while being the epitome of 'high' art also managed to offer audiences access to one of the cultural traditions of Australia's closest neighbour. Beautiful images were abundant and I particularly loved the music. I was surprised how affecting this performance was given the stylisation in design and performance.

8. How to be Funny (Ridiculusmus)
How to be Funny was performed only twice in repertoire with their very good production of The Importance of Being Earnest but struck me as the slightly better work. Hilarious for many reasons including it's subtle observations of conferences (you just know they must have sat through a lot of them) and wonderful impersonations of deadly serious academics. Most impressive, though, was that you learn something about comedy in this performance lecture. The gag of the flow chart detailing how comedy works is funny because it's true and it's obvious much effort and research has been put into it. That someone can make their PhD research funny is a mighty achievement. Who said academics weren't funny?

7. Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon / Kissy Kissy / Rubeville (The Suitcase Royale / Daniel Koerner / The Black Lung)
These 3 works were the best of those presented at the Black Lung Theatre; the best new venue of the year. Whilst perhaps stronger as a body of work at the Black Lung than as individual shows, each show, nevertheless, stands as some of the best of the year. Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon was The Suitcase Royale's stab at Australian Gothic. I saw this in development at Next Wave before its Black Lung Season and was disappointed. I've heard that the boys were too. So I was pleasantly surprised when the version I saw at the Black Lung was much tighter and had fixed the problems with its plot and story to match the inventiveness of its telling.

If I had to pick a favourite of the three it would probably be Kissy Kissy. Daniel Koerner and his performers (Mark Winter and Sarah-Jane St. Clair) dived into the potentially clichéd depths of the anatomy of a relationship - from the excitement of getting together to the pain of breaking up - and emerged with a new species. It takes the form of something of mixtape. We witness many vignettes often accompanied by a tune manually put on by one of the performers on a stereo. Sometimes the performers speak to the audience and sometimes they don't seem to know we're there. The mixture of knowingness and naivete was seamless.

I wasn't a huge fan of Avast the first show Black Lung produced. It seemed to me a one joke show (albeit impressively executed). Although the twin of that bastard child, Rubeville was an infinitely superior work. It was a caustic look at the pretensions and delusions of those who think they can save the world (think Ja'mie from Chris Lilley's We Can Be Heroes x100), among other things (that is, if indeed it was about anything). It threatened to implode under the weight of its own meta-theatricality but held together and that danger propelled the whole show. Deliciously cynical, politically incorrect and fucking hilarious.

6. Glow (Chunky Move)
The big draw card was the use of new technology which allowed the lighting to be controlled, wirelessly, by the dancer's movements. The results were astounding. At only 25 minutes long this could easily have been a dry, show-off session for technophiles. That it was that and more is what made Glow so successful. That just the performer's body could be lit while everything else was in darkness and that the performer could move freely knowing the light would follow was not only amazing to behold but allowed for many possibilities. These were exploited to their full effect. The narrative-less solo performance focused on someone (or something) whose body gets marked, followed, caught in cross-hairs and is generally trapped and trying desperately to escape. Lab rat? Man trapped by machine? Caught in a nightmare? Whatever you read into it the result was engrossing and moving.

5. Eldorado (Malthouse Theatre)
It featured the most daring set design on the mainstream stage this year which proved well thought out in the most intelligently directed play of the year. Marius von Mayenburg's apocalyptic vision of the near future was given a suitably desolate production by Benedict Andrews. The play seemed to me to be about the myths we lead ourselves to believe in difficult circumstances; both in the personal and political. When everything turned to shit and a relentless shower of gold foil (ash?, radioactive waste?, the remains of our civilization?) fell for the last 20 minutes of the production we were left with nothing but an overwhelming sadness. And a reflection of ourselves in the glass we had just been looking through.

4. Unholy Site (Spunk Collaborative)
Written and performed by Jacklyn Bassanelli and directed by Margaret Cameron, Unholy Site had a short season at the Croft Institute in January. A bold, passionate and urgent one-woman re-telling of Antigone, this work reminded us of the need for dissent, the need to question our leaders and fight against laws that are unjust. The central conceit of Antigone filming her monologue as her final words to Creon (knowing she won't live) was breathtaking and wonderfully realised through live performance and the live playback of the recording offering close-ups of Bassanelli's electric performance.

3. The Skriker (Brian Lipson/VCA)
It is a bold move to stage one of Caryl Churchill's most 'difficult' plays. But, as always, the VCA tackled a wonderful play that you would never see on a mainstage. I've read The Skriker many times over the years. It had always intrigued me and after each time I read it I always felt I was no closer to understanding what it was about. But that's exactly what it is about. It's about knowledge and the need to understand in the struggle for fulfillment; what we know, what we don't, how we acquire knowledge and the things we make up to explain what we don't understand. Brian Lipson's exuberant production cleverly illustrated Churchill's nightmare world where grotesque, folkloric characters cohabit with humans. It was a thrilling, disorientating and hugely enjoyable production.

2. Pichet Klunchun and Myself (Jérôme Bel/Pichet Klunchun)
In another quest for understanding, Jérôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun presented us their attempts to try and understand each other's art practice. This performative conversation, staged by the simplest of means, was a brilliantly lucid and very funny exploration of the differences and, more importantly, similarities between Klunchen's Eastern, traditional Khon dance and Bel's Western, post modern performance work and each artist's relation to their art form. It served as a brilliant introduction or reminder as to why the arts exist and featured the most concise and precise explanation of contemporary art as I've heard.

1. Tragedia Endogonidia BR. #04 Brussels (Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio)
This theatre of sound and image was so successful for the deliberate allusions its images made. Not only a primal and visceral experience but an extremely intelligent one as well. No other show this year gave me more food for thought. It was difficult not to read the show as representative of the tragedies and atrocities Europe is built on or the huge marble cube, in which the action took place, as the European Parliament located in Brussels. Technically the performance was perfectly executed as when the old man melts into his bed leaving no trace of his existence. This moment was not only a surprise but also felt somehow inevitable and it left me mouth agape (a reaction no other show of this year can claim). It perfectly linked back to the beginning of the performance when the black maid mopped the floor - washing away any evidence or guilt - reaffirming an unending cycle that continues to be Europe's dark history. A couple of weeks after seeing Tragedia Endogonidia BR. #04 Brussels I watched a documentary about the Rwandan genocide. I learned that it was the Belgians and Dutch who had colonised Rwanda and introduced the class difference between the Hutus and Tootsies which created the tension causing the genocide. I couldn't stop thinking of that black maid mopping the marble floor. It added another layer to an already densely layered (yet deceptively simple) work.

Honourable Mentions.
Songs of the Wanderers (Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan)
Politely Savage (My Darling Patricia)
The Yellow Wallpaper (The Storeroom/Malthouse Theatre)
Operation (Blood Policy)
Peepshow (Marie Brassard)
Singularity (Chunky Move)
From a Distance and Wages of Spin (Version 1.0)

Special Mentions.
Construction of the Human Heart (The Storeroom/Malthouse Theatre)
This way my favourite locally produced work in 2005. In the interest of not repeating myself, I didn't include it in my 2006 list even though I revisited it in it's Tower Theatre season. It remains one of the most cleverly written, directed and perfectly performed plays seen in Melbourne of recent times.

The Tulse Luper Suitcases (Peter Greenaway)
Not a live performance (and therefore not even included in my show count) but this film trilogy (and large scale multimedia project) presented at MIAF nevertheless deserves a mention for leaving me feel as though I'd seen an epic theatre production. Numerous actors playing the same character, multiple frames, editing without regard for continuity, artifices of film making exposed, non-naturalistic sets and an interval during part one all seemed more like theatrical conceits than a filmic ones. As did the ritual of returning to the venue three days straight to catch the next part. Utterly pretentious and I loved it.

Set design: Anna Cordingley
Anna Cordingley designed four of the best sets I saw this year for Not Like Beckett, Autobiography of Red, Slanting into the Void and A Mile in Her Shadow. The lighting designers in each case also contributed much to the respective shows. I reckon she'd have to be a shoe-in for the Green Room Award.

Ray's Tempest (MTC)
It especially pains me to rubbish a new Australian play when they form such a small part of an MTC season (and when they're not by Williamson, Rayson or Murray-Smith) but this was excruciatingly bad. A predictable soap-opera that failed on all counts. Badly directed and William McInnes was unwatchable (and appallingly mis-cast). I've tried hard to erase it from my memory but as I recall the only things I remotely liked were Alex Menglet's performance and the grotesquerie of the reality game show for the terminally ill which amused me for all of a minute.

Well, that's it. My summary of 2006. There were many theatrical rewards this year but there's always a lot of great theatre in Melbourne. Sometimes it can be difficult to find. Sometimes you need to sit through some bad theatre to get to the good stuff. Sometimes it forces you to make difficult demands of yourself. And sometimes it leaves you exhilarated. Makes the time, effort and money you've spent worth it. Makes you feel like a better person than when you entered the theatre. Offers you images or thoughts you've never seen or thought before. Well, that's my experience anyway. And even if it all disappears as I look back (or as the house lights go up), I'll happily descend again into the underworld in the hope of trying to reclaim those feelings in 2007. Hope to see you at the theatre.