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melbourne international arts festival 2010


the extra-ordinary

carl nilsson-polias: melbourne international arts festival


Intimacy, Ranters Theatre Intimacy, Ranters Theatre
photo Jeff Busby
PREMIERING AS PART OF THE MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL, RANTERS THEATRE’S INTIMACY BEGINS WITH A SMILE. IT’S THE LOVELY, BEGUILING, DISARMING SMILE OF THE ACTOR PAUL LUM, DIRECTED AT US, THE AUDIENCE, AND ECHOING THE BEGINNING OF RANTERS’ PREVIOUS PLAY, AFFECTION, WHICH ALSO BEGAN WITH THE ACTORS SMILING AT THE AUDIENCE, IN THAT CASE, FROM THE COMFORT OF A COUCH. THE RANTERS SMILE IS NOT A MASK OF HAPPINESS BUT AN ATTEMPT TO MAKE US COMPLICIT WITH THOSE ONSTAGE.

ranters’ intimacy

The success of this attempt is beside the point. Ranters does not seem concerned with whether we trust the smile or not, because it is the attempt that makes manifest the slipperiness of the social contract inherent in the relationship between actor and audience. No matter how open and charming the actor’s smile, it still seems odd and unnaturally jaunty, like the quizzical gesture of someone feigning recognition at a party of half-remembered acquaintances. Indeed, is Paul Lum actually smiling at us, or is it his onstage persona? And does he actually see us, or is he simply smiling at the black void below the bright lights? And, with a nod to Zen, how much does our presence matter?

Later in the production, a character tells Lum that he is a good listener because “you’re there, but not there,” like a priest behind the confessional, the paper of the diary or the analyst behind the chaise longue. In Ranters’ theatre, the audience is similarly there but not there—we are good listeners precisely because we are imagined rather than active interlocutors, intimates invited in by an ingenuous smile. But again, the success of the invitation is beside the point.

Ranters’ aesthetic fundamentally relies for its dramatic tension on the slippage between the performer’s invitation and the audience’s response. There is typically no plot and minimal character dynamics. Raimondo Cortese’s writing evades obvious subtexts and thematics. Instead, the actors speak of ordinary happenings, of personal thoughts in a meandering manner that defies obvious interpretation. Nevertheless, the mere ordinariness of the text invites listening and, crucially, interpretation—because we are in a theatre, where we expect things to mean something. Thus, by simply framing and detailing the ordinary, Ranters engages the audience in the process of theatrical meaning-making until the ordinary becomes something else that both reflects what it emerged from and transcends it.

In Intimacy, the distinction between the ordinary and the theatrical is twisted even more by its simple conceit—the vox populi. We are led to believe that Lum ventured out one balmy St Kilda night and asked strangers to chat. And they did. Or did they? It is one of those glorious suspensions of disbelief that some in the audience would not think to question. That we can believe that a pilot with panic attacks, an emotionally distant father who loves roller coasters, a man who performs birds and a chef who cannot sleep would all talk to Lum around Fitzroy Street on the same night is, in hindsight, extraordinary. But at the time, it all seemed so ordinary. That’s Ranters.

jack charles v the crown

Jack Charles V The Crown is based on the life of one of Melbourne’s most admired, beloved and recognisable actors. Jack Charles, born in 1943, was one of the Stolen Generation and his life, no matter how idiosyncratic or personal, is inevitably representative of this most rending of experiences. Nevertheless, Charles is defiantly not one to stick to a script, as he winkingly acknowledges after roaming off his cues a few times.

Early on, Charles shows us a slideshow of his childhood, filling in the images with anecdotes and self-effacing humour. Though the breezy language and inescapably cute faces in the photos push us into the realm of This Is Your Life, the effect is perfectly undercut by a slightly off-key violin note from Nigel MacLean that keeps the tone uneasy and complicated—not everything is snowdrops and nostalgia.

Charles’ knack for pottery, which he picked up during a gaol stint, is a central motif of the piece. At the start, we see him at his wheel, throwing a vase. He tells us the Kulin Nation creation story of Bunjil and Pallian, the first men, shaped by Birrarung clay. He shares a tender and beautiful moment of falling in love with another prisoner as he teaches him to shape the clay, the reverie of their touching made all the more sweet by Charles’ memory of “his PK spearmint breath.” The pottery wheel keeps spinning and coming back to the same place, but each revolution and glide of the fingers redefines the subject little by little.

In many respects, Charles’ stage presence is this piece. His warmth, effusiveness and gentleness draw us in, his deft touch with language and song wins us over. The structure is wandering, like the man himself, and never in a hurry, but never happier than when walking and talking.

Blue Dragon, Ex Machina Blue Dragon, Ex Machina
photo Yanick Macdonald
robert lepage, the blue dragon

When Robert Lepage comes to town, chances are there will be an army of black-clad theatre technicians stuffed into his valise. His production of The Blue Dragon does not disappoint on that level, with extremely detailed and ingenious scenography and spatial transformations.

The play represents Lepage’s second bite at the cherry of China. In 1985, his company, Ex Machina, produced The Dragons’ Trilogy, which refracted three generations of Chinatowns in Canada’s major cities into a spectrum of experiences that looked at China from afar. In fact, the Trilogy was less about China than Canada. The Blue Dragon is set in China but still it is more about Canadians suffering a bout of Orientalism than about the country it is set in, which steadfastly remains the Other in an unreconstructed sense. The narrative is a progression of hackneyed situations and the piece as a whole feels like a Fabergé egg, a hollow confection.

Vertical Road, Akram Khan Company Vertical Road, Akram Khan Company
photo Rachel Cherry
akram khan, vertical road

Fresh from its British premiere, Akram Khan’s latest dance piece, Vertical Road, begins in an unexpectedly literal manner. Seven figures covered in chalk stand in deathly stillness in front of a scrim. Their costumes evoke both the tight winding sheaths of fabric of East Asia and the looser robes of Sufism, but in their stillness and texture they bear a clear resemblance to Emperor Qin’s faded Terracotta Army. An eighth dancer remains outside this wedge formation of warriors and discovers at the front of the stage seven tablets arranged carefully but precariously on their sides. He inspects them with curiosity and then knocks them over like dominoes, a booby trap that revivifies the army of clay behind him. Alas, Harrison Ford does not appear with a whip and a hat to safely lead our hero past the flaming gates and rivers of mercury.

Instead, Khan’s imagery grows in confidence and complexity, threading together disparate motifs and ideas into a visual narrative that is borne along by Nitin Sawhney’s throbbing sweeps of drums and strings. From Plato’s Cave to whirling dervishes, from the invisible puppet strings of fate to the devotion of impassioned lovers, the choreographic language builds and extrapolates, always reaching towards ascension.

Ascension comes at the end of Vertical Road and is, appropriately, its most startling and transformative achievement. The scrim at the back of the space is the liminal point of communication between mortal and immortal worlds. Like the plane of water in Bill Viola’s Three Women, it diffuses and obscures the eternal figures behind it. As barely visible streams of water cascade down the scrim’s surface and haze fills the space behind it, a lone dancer, reaching towards the hands beyond, breaks through in a flash of golden light that unifies for one breathtaking instant the physical and metaphysical.


2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Ranters, Intimacy, devisor, director Adriano Cortese, text Raimondo Cortese, co-devisors, performers Beth Buchanan, Paul Lum, Patrick Moffatt, set & costume design Anna Tregloan, lighting Niklas Pajanti, sound design David Franzke, video Keri Light, choreography Alison Halit, Malthouse, Beckett Theatre, Oct 1-23; Jack Charles V The Crown, performer Jack Charles, co-writers Jack Charles, John Romeril, director Rachael Maza Long, design Emily Barrie, lighting Danny Pettingill, music Nigel MacLean, Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre, Oct 12-17; Ex Machina,The Blue Dragon, director, writer Robert Lepage, writer Marie Michaud, design Michel Gauthier, choreography Tai Wei Foo, Playhouse, The Arts Centre, Oct 8-12; Akram Khan Company, Vertical Road, choreographer Akram Khan, composer Nitin Sawhney, devised & performed by Eulalia Ayguade Farro, Konstantina Efthymiadou, Salah El Brogy, Ahmed Khemis, Young Jin Kim, Yen-Ching Lin, Andrej Petrovic, Paul Zivkovich, costumes Kimie Nakano, lighting Jesper Kongshaug, design Akram Khan and collaborators, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, Oct 19-23

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 6

© Carl Nilsson-Polias; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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