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Strange worlds, alarmingly familiar

Keith Gallasch on performances in Melbourne and Sydney

Alison Whyte, Bojana Novakovic, Greg Stone, Eldorado Alison Whyte, Bojana Novakovic, Greg Stone, Eldorado
photo Jeff Busby

In RealTime 73, Benedict Andrews described German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s Eldorado as “a luminous nightmare” (RT 73, p15). Andrews has realised his vision of the play for Malthouse in a superb production where the various windows between us and the world are made both literal and transformative, and always grimly revealing.

We enter the theatre viewing ourselves in a huge dark glass window the width of the stage and from behind which a ghostly face appears. Aschenbremmer, a businessman (Robert Menzies), describes a city at war. He presses a button and envelops himself in a white cloud out of which emerge other performers. They too are behind the glass, close to it and head-miked. We hear them acutely. They can play every nuance the script offers. They are near but far. So is the war. It seems like one in a Middle-Eastern city but is happening in the West. The characters nonetheless go about the business of relationships, art and property. Andrews commented in his RealTime interview that “The play was written March to May 2003 when Bush and company were invading Iraq and we were submitted to a constant stream of war pornography in the media, bringing the war near but keeping it far.”

Variations on this near and far dynamic are realised constantly as Andrews, his lighting designer Paul Jackson and the performers work the window. It accumulates finger prints and spittle, it’s leant on, slid down, faces are flattened against it. It becomes a mirror, a window onto an imagined garden, the viewpoint from a skyscraper office. In a very funny street scene Anton (Greg Stone) watches lobsters in a tank through what we imagine is a shop window. Oskar (Hamish Michael) joins him and comically mimics the crustaceans. Max Lyandvert’s sound score takes us outside this window on (or window closed to) the world with a burst of city noise or the rumble of war. The glass itself transforms, magically cleansed of human imprint by dextrous reversals in Jackson’s lighting.

Eldorado commences with war and a crime. In war, opportunists can transform ruin into gold. Here a crime will turn lives to dross. Anton has embezzled his boss, Aschenbrenner. He’s found out and sacked. He hides his dismissal from his newly pregnant wife, Thekla (Alison Whyte), a disaffected concert pianist belittled by her property dealer mother, Greta (Gillian Jones). Thekla’s piano playing goes into decline: art cannot fare well when a secretive husband and a war fuel her paranoia. Anton has sold land to Greta at extortionate prices and hidden the revealing documents which are sought by Greta’s young boyfriend, Oskar. Anton dooms himself, losing his wife and his sanity. Sketched thus Eldorado sounds like soap opera, but Mayenburg’s spare, imagistic writing and his lateral way into and out of scenes (magically segued by Andrews and his stage, lighting and sound designers) constantly open out a narrow bourgeois world into something more frightening. The challenges the characters face, or fail to face, are symptomatic of global phenomena, a world we are already experiencing as increasingly strange. We can feel far from these men and women, the moments of nearness are few, but we recognise the fears and vulnerabilities of Anton and Thekla in particular as purpose and connection drop away.

As it progresses, the play’s proximity to the real gives way too to fantasy. The characters suddenly assemble to sing Blondie’s Heart of Glass (a lateral reference perhaps to Werner Herzog’s film of the same name about a town driven mad?). Aschenbrennen suicides. Anton is haunted by his ghost and soon hangs himself. As Anton’s world disintegrates the heavens rain fine gold foil, in a seemingly endless soft shower, the luminescent nightmare ending with Aschenbrenner’s ghost announcing the city lost but the world still full of stock, still ripe for investment, its inhabitants golden skinned. Eldorado is always around the corner, no lessons have been learnt.

The performances in Eldorado are uniformally excellent, admirably meeting the demands of head-miking, acting through glass and embracing Mayenburg’s lateral language. Lyandvert’s score is sparely incorporated, making subtle use of the piano playing of Thekla’s world and adroitly propelling us into anxious or alarming spaces. My only complaint about the production is that the 2 hangings are too elaborately staged when compared with the excellent economies of gesture elsewhere. In Anton’s case it makes too much out of what should be a moment in a world unravelling.

Benedict Andrews’ consistently inventive direction, the boldness of his vision and its realisation in performance, in Anna Tregloan’s striking design and Paul Jackson’s lighting, is a credit to Malthouse. The association between von Mayenburg and Andrews looks set to continue through Malthouse while Andrews’ relationship with Berlin’s Schaubuhne further develops. This is a bringing together of the near and far that can richly benefit Australian theatre.
Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano
Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano

If Eldorado moves inexorably towards nightmare, Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano is a dream from the word go, dream laid over dream over dream as the fantasy worlds of Alice, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and the Lion from the Wizard of Oz merge into a less than seamless but nonethess magical theatrical whole. Characters bleed from one layer into another with a change of name or costume, and some even bleed into each other, the detective Mr Lally Katz is played by the same actor playing Miss Lally Katz.

For all that it appears to be a wonder world for children, Lally Katz... is full of alarming adult things. It’s an adult version of a rites of passage, looking back over its shoulder with sex on its mind and not a little spiralling relativism, defiling elderly literary fantasies concocted for innocents, and very funny for it too. A big deal is done, Wendy is sacrificed, Lion is a panther inside, Canberra is blown up by a volcano, Greg (whoever he is) has an eternal erection he cannot relieve (nothing is safe from him), but when he does, it is believed the volcano will erupt and the universe will be opened (is that a good thing?). I can tell you no more (it would take too long) save that in Chris Kohn’s more than able hands and with fine and rightly eccentric performances from the brave actors the great baggy Lally Katz... is made almost coherent (and it’s better that it’s not). Adam Girdnir’s staging ranges from intimate doll’s house to the theatre stripped bare, the whole done out with not a few deft theatrical tricks, cunning projections and a soccer goal mouth (the World Cup was on, reason enough). Composer Jethro Woodward on guitar creates an aptly eerie ambience and, with Kohn on drums, some fine song accompaniment.

Stuck Pigs Squealing have done Lally Katz’s rich, sprawling imagination proud, plumbing its depths in a memorable theatrical spectacle that amost tips us over the edge of the known world of theatre.

Michelle Outram, Not the Sound Bite!

At Speakers’ Corner in Sydney’s Domain, the site for decades of soapbox oratory on every conceivable subject, Sydney performer Michelle Outram occupies a perspex box decked with nifty speakers and ‘channels’ speeches by politicians from 1929 to 1992. Jessie Mary Grey Streets’ speech of 1949 was a declaration of independence from a Labor Party averse to even a succesful woman member. The recording has been treated so that Street is silenced from time to time. Outram similarly appears to have a mouth full of water, gesturing as if wishing to speak, occasionally stroking her long hair as if distracted from a daunting task. Paul Keating is allowed a smoother run in his famous Redfern Park speech of 1992 where he acknowledged white oppression of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The gestures are of cradling, the hands reach out, the head is bowed and the sound is textured with a soft tolling and passages of gently running water. Simplicity and clarity of movement and a sensitive balance between voice and added sound make this an affecting performance. James Henry Scullin’s 1937 ‘Top of the Hill’ speech sends Outram in her speaker’s box into a slow dance of rise and fall to the politician’s soporific intoning. Not the Sound Bite! uses Speakers’ Corner not so much to evoke its specific history (no anarchist, anti-abortion or animal rights speeches here) but to conjure voices from the greater Australian political sphere and put them back into public space.


With Eldorado performed behind glass and Not the Sound Bite! in a perspex box, it was an entirely synchronous pleasure to at last see Brian Lipson wonderfully self-contained in his little room on the Playhouse stage of the Sydney Opera House in A Large attendance in the antechamber.(June 27-July 16). The tiny room is a magical theatre machine, densely decked with foreign objects, arcane scientific equipment, candles, gas ring, an antique projector and Lipson himself, a consummate writer-performer who scarily brings to life Sir Francis Galton with all his prejudices and insights, trumpeting the beginnings of statistical analysis and its nasty bedfellow, eugenics. Meanwhile next door in The Studio, Meow Meow in Beyond Glamour: The Absinthe Tour (as part of the alt.cabaret season) was also doing something outrageous—trying to hang together a show with the help of her audience who do amazing things for her as she beautifully undoes wonderful songs (June 30-July 8). But more of Meow later when we interview this globetrotting, post-everything chanteuse
in RT 75.

Marius von Mayenburg, Eldorado, director Benedict Andrews, translator Maja Zade, performers Gillian Jones, Robert Menzies, Alison Whyte, Bojana Novakovic, Greg Stone, design Anna Tregloan, lighting Paul Jackson, sound Max Lyandvert; Malthouse Theatre, June 10-July 2; Lally Katz, Lally Katz and the Terrible Mysteries of the Volcano, director Chris Kohn, performers Christopher Brown, Margaret Cameron, Tony Johnson, Brian Lipson, Luke Mullins, Jenny Priest, Gavan O’Leary, designer Adam Gardnir, lighting Richard Vabre, sound Jethro Woodward, video Chris Kohn, Stuck Pigs Squealing, Theatreworks, St Kilda, June 2-18; Michelle Outram, Not the Sound Bite!, Terminus Projects; Speakers’ Corner, The Domain, Sydney, June

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 42

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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