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Michael Kantor's new Malthouse brew

Jonathan Marshall

Michael Kantor Michael Kantor
Michael Kantor was appointed artistic director of Playbox Theatre earlier this year, taking on a brief to revitalise the financially troubled Melbourne institution without breaking it. As a symbol of the organisation’s new direction, it is now to be known by the name of its home: the Malthouse. Kantor is enthusiastic about the programming changes he is introducing and the company’s novel eponym: “What I like about the name ‘Malthouse’,” he explains, “is that it refers to a melting point with the aim of intoxication. It’s about a confluence of elements: malt, water, barley—or sound, text and image, in the case of theatre. So it’s about collaborative forces coming together to create something which is seductive, which is ultimately transformative (like alcohol) and which allows for a multi-disciplinary approach to what you put on in a theatre.”

Kantor agrees that the Playbox name was apt in the past, when the company’s primary brief was to stage new Australian scripts. Under Kantor’s stewardship however, this will no longer be the case: “The previous name, Playbox, enshrined the centrality of plays in everything we did,” he observes. The new Malthouse is to be, in Kantor’s terms, a “theatre of the senses” as much as a theatre of scripts and writers.

Vintage re-mix

Kantor is launching the 2005 Malthouse program with 4 productions early in the year, 2 of which he is to direct. These are Patrick White’s The Ham Funeral and Tom Wright’s Journal of the Plague Year, to be staged with the same ensemble of performers and designers, and the same set. The inclusion of a play by White serves as a model for the way Kantor approaches theatre, text and performance. The director notes that the author of such difficult Australian classics as Voss still “hovers over Australian theatre as this sort of naughty godfather in the cupboard who whispers: ‘It doesn’t have to be this way! It doesn’t have to be naturalistic! It doesn’t have to be logical!’ White was a great writer who had great thoughts about the theatre and he merged the two into these messy theatrical events, offering up volatile Australian worlds. But they’re not well made plays...They’re actually kind of awkward things. But they have the tactility of great works, and when you’re dealing with something conceptually great in that sense there is an inherent strength that means you can take risks as you tear into it. One thing we should be doing is looking back at our theatre history and saying, ‘What are the things that need to be thought about again?’” Given that debate still rages around White’s theatrical writings, Ham Funeral is an ideal choice for such re-evaluation.

A similar mining of history to produce radical new visions underlies Wright’s Journal of the Plague Year. Kantor and Wright collaborated last year on the darkly acerbic, crazily satirical contemporary panto Babes in the Wood. Just as Wright trawled through 19th century Australian and colonial history and writings for Babes, so the writer is now examining the religious and political discourse which emerged from the tensions between the restored British monarchy and the post-revolutionary Parliament while plague ravaged London in 1664-5. “Tom excavates history on the stage,” Kantor explains, “using artefacts, novels and extant plays to access an historical moment which he feels has great relevance for us right now. So it’s about dredging up history to present it as part of the now.” Kantor adds that for Journal of the Plague Year Wright is drawing on descriptions and metaphors which arose in the 1660s relating to “the physical decay of bodies, of a city and of a people—and the mounting hysteria that was attached to that. There is this overarching contemporary metaphor of a morally diseased society.”

Wright notes that before today’s Western alliance became bogged down in protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the collapse of the Soviet bloc had led to much talk of the “End of History.” Instead we saw “the Balkans and Rawanda implode; and to me, it seemed like history was a disease of bestiality which periodically bubbled up, destroying our illusions.” Journal of the Plague Year thus constitutes a critique of the messianic delusions of Western rulers, and the way the very materiality of flesh, and of societies, make a mockery of them.

Intoxicating curation

Perhaps the most significant change which Kantor is inaugurating at the Malthouse is in transforming the organisation into a curatorial venture. Rather than hiring out the Malthouse’s theatres when the company is not staging its own productions, outside artists will be selected according to how they meet the aims and programming needs of the company. All productions housed at the venue will be scheduled as part of an overall season of adjacent works, much like a curated show at a gallery. Currently, the only institution to employ this model is La Mama, which chooses works from a wide pool of applicants that are then staged within La Mama or the nearby Carlton Courthouse.

The Malthouse will also be hosting regular workshops and popular fora. “We want to create great opportunities for theatre-makers,” Kantor explains. “Not only writers, but also directors and actors to work on shows which they think are important—and to imagine an audience for them. It’s about a series of relationships. We want to make the theatre about not merely a play, but an event, which starts as soon as you arrive. It’s about what’s going on in the foyer and how shows are talked about beforehand; what’s the relationship between shows that you might see in any one season.” With Kantor at the helm, Malthouse should be curating intoxicating goodness for years to come.

Malthouse Theatre’s Autumn 2005 program can be accessed and ordered from

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 37

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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