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adelaide festival


the games art plays

keith gallasch & virginia baxter in adelaide


Hamish Michael, Moving Target Hamish Michael, Moving Target
photo Tania Kelley
FIVE DAYS IN ADELAIDE GAVE US A MERE GLIMPSE OF THE 2008 FESTIVAL PROGRAM. WE SAW PRODUCTIONS OF MOVING TARGET, THE RED PRIEST AND THE ANGEL, THE DAY THE RAIN STOPPED, AINADAMAR, DON'T LOOK BACK, MUCH OF THE VISUAL ARTS PROGRAM AND, ON THE FRINGE, THE BORDER PROJECT'S TROUBLE ON PLANET EARTH. IN THIS BRIEF ENCOUNTER, THE MALTHOUSE PRODUCTION OF GERMAN PLAYWRIGHT MARIUS VON MAYENBURG'S MOVING TARGET WAS A REVELATION, AINADAMAR ENGAGING BUT OVER-PRODUCED AND THE LOCAL WORKS, THE RED PRIEST AND THE ANGEL AND THE DAY THE RAIN STOPPED, DISAPPOINTINGLY INSUBSTANTIAL. IN THE VISUAL ARTS WORKS EXHIBITED AT THE SAMSTAG MUSEUM, EXPERIMENTAL ART FOUNDATION AND JAM FACTORY PROVED MORE TELLING THAN THE ADELAIDE BIENNIAL ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ART FORMS AND COMPULSIONS.

moving target

Marius von Mayenburg's play was created for Melbourne's Malthouse in close collaboration with the director Benedict Andrews and a skilled team of actors over a long period [see interview p13]. This is reflected in the intense physicality of the production—built around the hide-and-seek game played over and over—and a spare text—brief, crisp lines in rapid alternation, suggestive at once of a single consciousness and a schizoid condition. It's a play in which writer and director allow the actors' bodies to speak powerfully for themselves.

Six characters, with the first names of their performers, inhabit a small concrete-walled room with a lounge, a table, tablecloth and chair, a carpet and some toys, a sleeping bag and a microphone attached to a wall. Clearly adults, the characters nonetheless behave like children (while never actually imitating them): playing, sulking, intimidating and bullying, sinking into moments of self-obsession, forming fragile allegiances, being easily spooked. The obsessive playing of hide-and-seek seems mostly triggered by moments of anxiety they've generated amongst themselves. Sometimes it's the result of an external force signalled by loud sounds: "like an earthquake, annoying but not alarming", but later, "like being hit by a bus."

These impacts are gradually revealed to belong to someone they simply refer to as "she." Soon we realise these people are not simply inside a room, they're inside "her", and "she" is unpredictable and frightening; later they are terrified at the prospect of having to negotiate with her. What is more alarming is that "she" is a child, an alien creature they conjure, seeing her holding a doll with one eye dangling by a thread...and there's a stain on the floor.

The game these characters play with the commitment of obsessive-compulsives is a kind of collective defence mechanism that protects them as adults from dealing with the reality represented by the child. As von Mayenburg says of writing Moving Target, "it was very joyful to turn it around and say kids are dangerous and parents are scared. I think a lot of parents are scared of their children. You don’t know what they’re thinking, what they know and what they don’t know." A rapid series of utterances skirt around issues about children, reflecting the self-censoring evasiveness of adults where the actual topic goes missing or is not named: "Well, she’s started." "And how old is she?" "Oh, she’s eight." "They usually start at 10." This fear, this resistance, puts "she", the child, at risk at the end of the play, by which time she's considered a possible terrorist and, even if not, "then better off dead...just in case."

Moving Target unfolds unconventionally, suspensefully and powerfully, the narrative structure building firmly around a motif (hide-and-seek) and constant, relentless variations on it as the game playing becomes more and more inventive, and then desperate and then destructive with players ruining each others' moves. Between the hiding-and-seeking there are moments of boredom, small and full-scale intimidations and the release provided by wild crashings into walls. There are sudden ritual responses to "her" huge sonic incursions (electronic noise, songs)—the characters lining up and gesturing peculiarly as if to appease a god. However, in the final section, when the child's fate becomes the focus of the action, the characters realise that something has to be done, and their world changes. As the media and state fantasy of a child terrorist escalates into spectacle, the room is flooded with a cycle of rich single colours, a visual playground totally at odds with the unfolding horror and the panic of its helpless inhabitants.

Moving Target's power comes not only from its dramatic stucture but also from its patterned thematic reversals: the adults are child-like, the adults are inside the child; the adults are afraid of the child; the adults are complicit in the child's demise. The inner child of these adults is still at play in their endless inventiveness but they are dangerously manipulable, prey to cliche and stereotyping, they are evasive, and only unanimous in their fear and prejudices. These are the collective parents of "she", symbolic of a society out of touch with itself. In the end, they swing between "she's only a child" to "she'll get ideas" to "she doesn't know what's going on inside of her." And when a sniper shoots her, they say, "We all felt it", "But it was not unpleasant", "We prevented the worst."

The ensemble playing in Moving Target is exemplary. Julie Forsyth Matthew Whittet, Rita Kalneijais, Alison Bell, Robert Menzies and Hamish Michael create both idiosyncratic characters and a collective psyche with a single purpose, survival, even if it means sacrificing its own offspring. With Andrews they generate remarkable versions of hide-and-seek, moving from the obvious to slapstick to astonishing sculptural forms, moments of magic, lateral takes (hiding identities by exchanging clothes and disappearing into non-human forms)—all with the limited means of a few props and disciplined bodies. Robert Cousins' concrete bunker-like box of a room is another of those indeterminate, spare spaces Virginia Baxter wrote about in RealTime 83 [p14], in which contemporary directors make their magic. Paul Jackson's lighting shifts subtly across Cousins' grainy surfaces, highlighting the interiority of the room's inhabitants and the sudden incursions of the outside world before launching boldly into the final mad nightmare flattening of the world with extreme colour states. Moving Target is one of the strangest and most rewarding of theatre experiences of recent times.

when the rain stops falling

From the 1960s to 2039 the lives of a family and those they connect with through love, marriage and coincidence unravel while an abused Earth turns barren. Fish are extinct but one falls from the sky (as they and frogs can do in freak storm conditions), a symbolic trigger for a journey of recollection across 80 years. Gabriel York cannot believe it's a miracle. This is a world without miracles, one where love is cruelly punished or refused, fathers abandon children, and sexual abuse becomes the original sin, for this family at least, extending on to apparent suicides, or are they serial killings?

In outline, When the Rain Stops Falling would seem to have the cosmological potential of Greek or Elizabethan tragedy, linking family turmoil with the turbulent elements, the wrath of the Gods or the indifference of fate. But, beyond providing a grand if grim metaphor for a family drama, environmental disaster is rather peripheral to Bovell's saga. It's not, that I recall, of immediate concern to any of the characters, which is curious for a play written in this moment. Without the immediacy and urgency of this context and burdened by the narrative baggage of generations (including three Gabriels and one Gabrielle), When the Rain Stops Falling drifts perilously close to melodrama. Hossein Valamanesh's spare design is not allowed to stand on its own (being unsympathetically mixed with video projections), nor seems representative of his vision. Actors Neil Pigot and Paul Blackwell get some of the best of the writing and excel with it.

Ainadamar Ainadamar
ainadamar

Oswaldo Golijov's opera Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears) melodically juxtaposes and merges the music of the Christian, Sephardic and Arabic cultures of Spain's history in this account of the death of poet and playwright Lorca [see RT81, p5]. It's a work of reflection: an ageing actress, Maria Xirgu, guiltily recalls failing to persuade Lorca to come into exile with her in 1936. Lorca in turn reflects on his muse, the revolutionary Mariana Pineda, executed in 1831. We witness Lorca's capture by the fascists, the terror and pathos of his interrogation and 'confession', and his execution. But his spirit endures through Maria Xirgu to another generation.

Director Graeme Murphy gives Ainadamar the grand opera treatment. Curved moveable screens by Brian Thompson move about the large Adelaide Festival Theatre stage like giant sculptures. Tim Gruchy projects potent images onto them, effectively evoking the historical moment and Lorca's symbolism. The all female chorus dances. A huge upstage waterfall (a curtain of real water in odd addition to Gruchy's projections) evokes the Ainadamar Dountain. The spirit of Maria Xirgu and of the fountain are embodied in a frequently present dancer, who despite the occasional flamenco inflection appears to have wandered in from a Sydney Dance Company production. Overall, the scale of the production and the opera itself didn't seem to match. The principals sang well but rather quietly, the orchestra seemed likewise restrained, although the pulse of their playing was right. Much of the opera takes the form of intimate duets. It feels like a chamber opera,but here the performers seemed dwarfed by the production.

While guitarist Slava Gregorian appeared onstage early in the work, he and his brother Leonard remained in the pit for the later moment of reprieve, Crepuscule deliriant ("Delirious sunset, an interlude of light and orchestra—guided by two Arab guitars"). Instead of intimacy we got more of the dancing spirit of Jan Pinkerton. Problems of scale aside, Kelley O'Connor's deep mezzo made for a fine Lorca, Jessica Rivera sang an aptly passionate Maria Xirgu, and the production proved a tolerably cogent introduction to the opera.

the angel & the red priest

More problematic was The Angel and the Red Priest by Adelaide playwright Sean Riley. Vivaldi's flirtation with the inmate of an orphanage school allowed the priest to break new ground in composing for the soprano voice. But he leaves her behind once he has secured a position with the Austrian court. There's not much of a story to tell in this ponderous and thoroughly chaste production, imagining little beyond the bare bones of the facts. Dialogue scenes stolidly alternate with passages from Vivaldi's compositions (led by Gabriella Smart on harpsichord) so that any opportunity of creating a work of music theatre dissipates—instead, it's a play with music refusing any creative interplay.

The Border Project The Border Project
trouble on planet earth

With almost eight hours of material comprising 113 scenes, 24 possible endings, 20 characters and a mere five onstage performers (plus one pre-recorded), The Border Project's Trouble on Planet Earth is nothing less than ambitious, not least because the audience choose the direction the story will take—inevitably different ones each night. The choosing is made easy by an invention from Matthew Gardiner (creator of Oribotics), a hand-held device like a slightly large-ish i-Pod that, simply moved to different planes, registers your choice from the options displayed onscreen above the playing area and slickly voiced by Amber MacMahon. The glow of red, green or blue rippling through the audience or massing in blocks adds its own frisson and bouts of amusement as responses to the blunt options become wilder and sometimes shocking. The alarming collective choice, for example, to "blow away" a villain is tempered by the parodic outcome, the performers running with the moment as in an edgy improvisation.

The setting, a stylish contemporary gift store, provides the performers with the props (including clothing and matching artillery) to follow through on audience choices. The script, however, is the major arsenal, written by Finnegan Kruckemeyer in collaboration with The Border Project. Much of the writing is parodic, the use of genres (film noir, sci-fi, soap opera etc) allowing the audience to play with formulae they know. Given that the choice-making moments slow the pulse of the action (if only a little because the technology is remarkably efficient) the best writing is brisk (some of the longer dialogues outstay their welcome) and quirky, pushing genres into surreal territory. Enjoyment will possibly hinge on how tolerant you are of surreal slippage into silliness and the dominance of US popular culture genres (in the performance we saw). At its slightest, Trouble on Planet Earth is knowingly kitsch entertainment, at its best it pushes an always dodgy old interactive cinema model into some wickedly amusing theatrical territory and does it with verve. The more demanding the choices, the better. But that might depend on the audience with whom you find yourself making them. "I didn't like the ending", could mean much more than it used to.

don't look back

Don't Look Back is an elaborate performance installation in which three audience members at a time are largely self-guided (it's an illusion, but well designed) though a former land titles office (The Torrens Building) decked out as a 19th century Victoran registry—largely of deaths. The feel is distinctly gothic as a series of images—a ghostly bride, red roses, a dark violinist, a journey by water—accumulate via projections, maquettes and installations, the latter inhabited by top-hatted clerks endlessly filing death certificates, or a single official obsessively guillotining documents (the swish and thump you hear on approach). The UK's dreamthinkspeak have exploited the old building to great effect, distributing the work across small offices, up and down stairs, in an elevator (suddenly missing an exit), dusty basements and, finally, a black hole of a tunnel where the bride at her most ghostly drifts out of the dark. While the student performers ably acquitted their roles, there's no doubt that a greater age range would have made for a more complete experience.

Don't Look Back is an anxiety-inducing creation, not because of the imagery which is predictably gothic, or the story—there's not much to tell—or the meanings of the setting—the work is only very laterally site-specific. It's because the building is magically transformed into an eerie, disorienting labyrinth.


Malthouse, Moving Targets, writer Marius von Mayenburg, translator Maja Zade, director Benedict Andrews, designer Robert Cousins, lighting Paul Jackson, sound Hamish Michael, costumes Fiona Crombie; Odeon Theatre, Adelaide Festival of the Arts, Feb 29-March 8

Brink Productions and State Theatre Company of South Australia, When the Rain Stops Falling, writer Andrew Bovell, director, dramaturg Chris Drummond, performers Neil Pigot, Carmel Johnson, Ann Lise Phillips, Paul Blackwell, Kris McQuade, Michaela Cantwell, Yalin Ozucelik, designer Hossein Valamanesh, lighting Niklas Pajanti, composer Quentin Grant, video design TheImaGen; Scott Theatre, Adelaide Festival of the Arts, Feb 28-March 15

Ainadamar, composer Osvaldo Golijov, libretto David Henry Wang, director Graeme Murphy, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, principal performers Jessica Rivera, Kelley O'Connor, Leanne Kenneally, dancer Jan Pinkerton, design Brian Thompson, costumes Jennifer Irwin, lighting Damien Cooper, video design Tim Gruchy, Festival Theatre, Adelaide Ferstival of the Arts, Feb 29-4

The Border Project, Trouble on Planet Earth, conceived & devised by the Border Project, writer-deviser Finnegan Kruckemeyer, director Sam Haren, performers Cameron Goodall, Amber McMahon, Katherine Fyffe, Alirio Zavarce, Jude Henshall, David Heinrich, sound Andrew Russ, andrew Howard, set Matthew Kneale, lighting Ben Snodgrass, zigzag controllers Matthew and Ray Gardiner, video Daniel Koerner, video & controller operation Nathan O'Keefe; Fringe Factory, Adelaide Fringe, Feb 26-March 16

dreamthinkspeak, Don't Look Back, artistic director Tristan Sharps, Torrens Building, Adelaide Fringe, Feb 29-March 16

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch & Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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