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world theatre festival

embracing the world

stephen carleton: brisbane powerhouse, world theatre festival

A Doll House, Pan Pan Theatre A Doll House, Pan Pan Theatre
courtesy the company

There was some genuinely good and interesting work in the program, but as is often the case with inaugural years of risky and ambitious new ideas, audiences were small and populated mostly by dedicated theatregoers and industry practitioners. Shows that had worked well in idiosyncratic performance ghettoes in Melbourne (the ‘World’ being Melbourne and Dublin that year, from memory) didn’t always transfer successfully into the larger and more conventional theatre spaces of the Powerhouse.

Then in 2011 Artistic Director Andrew Ross pulled off a major marketing coup, securing a $500,000 philanthropic gift over three years from founder Graeme Wood. Suddenly WTF exploded into the stratosphere with work from the USA, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Argentina; the Australian quotient was more selectively curated, and local theatre-makers were nurtured under the auspices of a developmental wing in the form of a show-and-tell ‘scratch’ series (RT102). The 2013 WTF season is the final one of the Wotif endowment, and it is the crowning achievement of Ross’ tenure (he has stepped down from his Artistic Directorship of the Powerhouse) and Sarah Neal’s programming curatorship. WTF has become the must-attend event of the Brisbane theatre calendar.

The festival team has not only developed the strongest and most compelling line-up of all the WTFs thus far (with an entirely welcome new writing focus), they have also pulled off the most effective use of the Powerhouse’s many intriguing spaces. Melbourne’s MKA Theatre of New Writing bring their successful run of The Economist (RT107) to town, housed in the Rooftop Terrace, a flexible upstairs space tucked away beyond the administration offices. The Brechtian actor-audience shenanigans—the direct address and irreverent song-and-dance routines that drive the pace of this theatrical riff on the biography of rightwing Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik—simply work better in enclosed confines than they would in either of the BP’s traditional theatre venues. And Ireland’s Pan Pan Theatre return to the large Powerhouse Theatre having played there in 2011 with their anarchic version of Oedipus; this time they know how to really fill the space and take advantage of its warehouse-like dimensions and extraordinary acoustics. Their postmodern A Doll House is a festival highlight.

a doll house

Ibsen’s 1871 play A Doll’s House might not scream ‘new writing,’ but writer-director Gavin Quinn’s liberal adaptation of the text (losing the possessive ‘s’ in the play’s title is perhaps emblematic of such liberty) renders it as fresh as a newly minted manuscript. Here the maid, Mrs Helmer, recites the stage directions to the audience, announces the subtext and provides plot summaries at key dramatic junctures. More than a post-Brechtian indulgence, the play text is being reconfigured and reimagined in strategic ways that cause us to reconsider who Nora is (not was in 1871). Is she a WAG—a footballer’s wife and/or girlfriend? A symbol of materialistic Celtic Tiger Dublin (before the Crash)? The acquisitive McMansion hausfrau in the outer suburbs of any 21st century city? Is she, in other words, one of us? In this version the language sings, as do the characters who break into rousing ballads from Les Mis or the Whitney Houston back-catalogue when internal reflection is called for. In Quinn’s Doll House, Nora rips open parcels, decorates for Christmas and dances a berserk tarantella like a demon-possessed Barbie. She delivers platitudes like a robot or an irrigation sprinkler caught in a repeat cycle. The playing style leans toward the absurdist but can just as readily dogleg into the melodramatic or soap operatic. Upon her arrival and having witnessed this spoilt-child-in-a-candy-store act, Christina announces, “You’re just like you were at school. A profligate. A wagon. A bitch.” Characters refer to taking Es and indulging in internet chat sex. It’s all irresistibly of its moment.

There were some I spoke to after the show who felt that certain of the post-Brechtian devices were gratuitous or inconsistently applied. Perhaps. But it’s difficult to begrudge a company of fine actors the odd moment or two of gratuitous playfulness when the cumulative effect is of such theatrical richness and exuberance. I enjoyed this production significantly more than the company’s 2011 grunge take on Oedipus.

white rabbit, red rabbit

White Rabbit Red Rabbit, writer Nassim Soleimanpour stops the performance by Richard Fidler and introduces himself to the audience at WTF2013, Brisbane White Rabbit Red Rabbit, writer Nassim Soleimanpour stops the performance by Richard Fidler and introduces himself to the audience at WTF2013, Brisbane
photo Studio Impressions
The performance history of this piece is as intriguing as the work itself. Soleimanpour has received national press coverage with this Australian premiere of his play. Despite the fact that the play has been performed in cities as far afield as Dublin, Edinburgh, Brighton, Calgary and San Francisco, this is the first time Soleimanpour has been granted a passport by the Iranian government and allowed to watch the work performed. Soleimanpour is the ‘I’ character in the script: it is written as correspondence to its imagined audience. A different actor reads the script each night. It arrives, delivered by a festival representative in a sealed packet. On the night I saw the show, it was ABC Radio’s Richard Fidler who ably executed the task. He is instructed by the playwright in absentia to do things like require the audience to number themselves out loud so that No 5 or No 12 might be asked to do things like improvise plot sequences or take notes of the performance so that they can be emailed to Soleimanpour to provide him vicarious experience of the show. Of course, this particular conceit was broken on this occasion by the physical presence of the writer. He leapt onto the stage to emotional applause at one point to acknowledge the fact.

The narrator, assisted by his team of audience conscripts, retells the story of Soleimanpour’s uncle who used to breed rabbits, painting one red and treating it preferentially. It is a psychological exercise in learned behaviour, as the white rabbits round savagely on the red rabbit. The upshot is that even when the inequity is taken away—the experiment suspended—future generations of rabbits still act according to the learned behaviour of their forebears. Prejudicial behaviour—even violence, and by metaphoric extension, war—is trained into us, the writer seems to be telling us. We hold onto ancient grudges even when we have no direct experience of the original point of conflict or resentment.

It is an extraordinary theatrical experiment, made all the more memorable on this occasion by the author’s physical presence rather than his haunting of a script he has never heard read aloud. It will influence writers, theatre stylists and experimenters of form and structure for years to come.


Parah, The Instant Café Theatre Company Parah, The Instant Café Theatre Company
courtesy the company
In a post-show Q&A at the Parah matinee, director Jo Kukathas asked the audience if the surtitling of this piece had likely kept audiences away. Festival producer Zohar Spatz mentioned that at the 2012 WTF there were three foreign language productions and that it had been too tall an ask for Brisbane audiences; the festival was in the process of re-educating the local theatre-going community accordingly. If it’s true that language is determining which productions audiences choose—even at a festival themed by its focus on ‘new writing’ and the spoken/written word—it’s a shame, because Parah was an accessible and tightly crafted piece of dramatic writing.

Singaporean playwright Alfian bin Sa’at (whose 2012 MKA production of Sex. Blood. Violence. Gore has drawn several Green Room Award nominations; RT110) has a reputation for courting controversy. The Singaporean censor has not appreciated his frank depiction of (particularly queer) sexuality over the years. He writes in both English and Malay, and with Parah has provided the translation of the latter into the former. Taken from a real-life Education Ministry controversy, this is a student-centred play that examines racial prejudice in contemporary Malaysia. Ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities are the victims of racial stereotyping in a curriculum text, Interlok. Mahesh, Kahoe, Hafiz and Melur represent the Indian, Chinese and Malay communities depicted in the education text, and their own social cohesion is tested—indeed almost rendered asunder—by their responses to the allegations of racism in the school curriculum. This is a moving and beautifully acted piece; whilst the play is not the most radical of Sa’at’s works in either form or content, it has hit a cultural nerve in Kuala Lumpur and deserves a wider audience, particularly here in Australia where, as the festival producers are keen to remind us, the themes of racism, social cohesion and immigration are bound to resonate.

Melur provides an anecdote toward the play’s climax: her mother told her of a Malay lady from the end of her street who ritually cleansed her teacup after a Chinese tradesman drank from it. It is an elegant reminder of the sort of cultural prejudice that exists even in modern leafy suburbs. The four teenage friends survive the turmoil and play a real-life game of badminton in the theatre at play’s end, sharing water from the same bottle. It’s a gentle image that somehow encapsulates the heart at the centre of the writing, playing and direction of Parah.

Brisbane Powerhouse, World Theatre Festival 2013: Pan Pan Theatre (Ireland), A Doll House, writer Gavin Quinn, Feb 13-17; White Rabbit Red Rabbit (Iran), writer Nassim Soleimanpour, Feb 14-24; The Instant Café Theatre Company (Malaysia), Parah, writer Alfian bin Sa’at; Brisbane Powerhouse, Feb 13-17

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 45

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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