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melbourne international arts festival

kinds of truth

john bailey on epics and intimacies

Marie Brassard, Peepshow Marie Brassard, Peepshow
photo John Sones

Not to overstate things: there were many, many pieces which were very good, but only a handful which were great, and only Marie Brassard’s Peepshow was an absolute must-see.

an issue of space

The problem wasn’t in the programming, but came down to space. Firstly, several shows were negatively affected by being placed in inappropriate venues. This was most notable in works staged at the Arts Centre—though blame cannot be levelled at artistic director Kristy Edmunds, since a quarter of the festival budget is allocated to hiring the Arts Centre before she even begins to select the year’s offerings. Secondly, and conversely, some truly exceptional works have the ability to reinvent the spaces in which they’re set. This year, Malthouse was the big winner in this regard. Though I’ve seen countless stagings in the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre, each night I attended the venue during this year’s festival I felt I was entering an undiscovered space.

Last year’s festival highlights were almost all set in unconventional locations: the concourse of Flinders Street Station; a pair of hotel rooms at the Grand Hyatt; the majestic, cavernous Exhibition Buildings. This added to each work’s uniqueness, and made for some unforgettable experiences. I can’t help but think that no matter how good this year’s works were, however, some were still hampered by an inability to transcend the restrictions of their location.

Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo is a perfect case study. It is, as expected, a piece of mammoth scale, both in duration and physical size. A retelling of Sureq Galigo, the ancient, epic poem of Indonesia’s Bugis people, it features a cast of 50 and a sizeable number of musicians accompany the story’s telling. And like most creation myths, of course, it’s a gripping narrative that maintains interest throughout with plenty of bloodshed, incest, omens and outrage. Played out across the entire stage of the State Theatre, Wilson ensures the opera is suitably grandiose and carefully paced.

But the program notes for I La Galigo note that audiences are free to wander in and out of the auditorium throughout the work’s unfolding, as would occur in a traditional piece of Indonesian theatre. This is a pleasing allowance, given the show’s three-hour span, but clambering past 20 pairs of knees for a breath of air isn’t really something most Arts Centre patrons look well upon. Despite the opera’s excellence, I couldn’t help but feel it would work better in an open-air amphitheatre, or a venue which really encouraged the audience to appreciate the work in a more involved, less reverential way. When several patrons whispered to one another near my seat, there was no shortage of hostile glances from others nearby: Shhh! This is art!

romeo castellucci

Romeo Castellucci’s fourth instalment in the 11-part Tragedia Endogonidia series, BR#04: Brussels, would likely have suffered a similar fate had it been staged to too large an audience. In the Merlyn, however, it created an intimate and immediate experience that for me made it an unqualified success. Castellucci’s method with this series was to travel to a European city with his company and create an impressionistic tragedy without chorus, a sequence of scenes without dialogue that responds to, but does not explicitly comment on, that city’s history, culture and place. In the case of Brussels, Castellucci’s performers enact ritualistic displays which connote governance, relationships of power and brutality, and the passing of time as played out upon the human body. Images are sometimes strikingly simple: a curtain opens on a baby, perhaps eight months old, gurgling away on a blanket, while a robotic head at the rear of the stage recites numbers. Simple, yes, but hugely evocative of all sorts of ideas: vulnerability, growth, education, emptiness, immediacy. The fact that the unattended baby is in no way directed by Castellucci also drives home the work’s ineffable liveness, and the accompanying chance and unpredictability that go with any form of live performance.

Theatre of this type can be the most difficult to create, since Castellucci does not generate fixed meanings, nor deny such meanings, but establishes the conditions required for meaning-making. The sequences we bear witness to, and their juxtaposition, allow their audience to mentally wander through vast chasms of possibility, echoing with notions of religion, mortality, power and the passing of time. We’re never sure what Castellucci’s intentions are, but surely we’re past the need to find such authorial intentions. This is the kind of work which trusts its audience’s capacity to interpret, and offers a rich abundance of material with which to do so.

At the same time, Castellucci’s is not merely an intellectual exercise. Many of the provocative scenes don’t simply appeal to our cerebral, analytical side: bloody police violence, the decrepitude of an aging body or the frailty of an infant all call forth immediate, bodily responses, whether revulsion, sympathy, abjection or delight. It’s an excellent deployment of theatre’s liveness, its temporary nature, in which an audience and performers share a space and a moment, both of which will soon be gone. While many conceptual performances would seem as vital on paper as in actual production, this work, at least, is utterly and necessarily alive.

marie brassard

I’ll confess that, despite the enraptured reports I’d heard, I wasn’t too optimistic about Marie Brassard’s Peepshow. The promise of a solo piece whose main point of interest was the electronic alteration of its performer’s voice conjured up images of, at best, a Laurie Anderson-style experiment with technology that might have had some urgency two decades ago or, at worst, the kind of gimmickry that kept many a BBC sound engineer in business during the Doctor Who years of my youth. The moment Brassard uttered her first words, though, I was instantly converted. Over the next hour and a half, she became, variously, a child of six, a deep-voiced man, a guttural ogre and much more besides. The technology she employs is so effective that, indeed, I have no idea what the ‘real’ Marie Brassard sounds like; this is entirely in keeping with the chameleon-like nature of the work as a whole.

Peepshow is about the mutability of identity, most especially as expressed through desire. Brassard wears a heavy blonde wig and oversized sunglasses, concealing her face, and a long red coat and black boots which equally serve to cover rather than reveal. She is the lone figure in a setting of thick rusted pillars and dense shagpile carpet, and for most of her monologue is lit by a dim, shifting lightscape that often creates the effect of viewing the performer through murky water. Her voice always pierces that space between stage and audience, however, and acts as a tour guide through a tangled maze of taboo, horror and sensuality.

She begins with a retelling of the Red Riding Hood fairytale, but despite the story’s iconic familiarity we hang on every suspenseful word, unsure what twist will emerge in the next sentence. From here, her narratives spiral out to encompass childhood humiliations, wistful memoir, fears of what lurks beneath the bed and several disturbing sadomasochistic journeys into what may be fantasy, but may be all too real. Like every other aspect of this compelling work, however, it’s clear that Brassard is far too confident in her ability to construct and exchange masks for us ever to mistake confession as autobiography. At the same time, in donning these masks Brassard produces the sense that at that moment, at least, these identities are a kind of truth, and that fantasy itself offers an experience both real and unreal.

I La Galigo, direction Robert Wilson, adaptation, Rhoda Grauer, music Rahaya Supanggah; State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 19-23; Societas Raffaello Sanzio, Tragedia Endogonidia: BR#04 Brussels, direction, design Romeo Castellucci, writings, direction, vocal, sound, dramatic score Claudia Castellucci, original music Scott Gibbons; Malthouse Theatre, Oct 12-15; Peepshow, devisor, director, performer Marie Brassard, music & sound design Alexander MacSween, lighting Simon Guibault, Malthouse Theatre, Oct 24-28

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 30

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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