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Melbourne International Arts Festival

The medium is the audience

John Bailey

Jim Russell, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects Jim Russell, Simon Laherty, Small Metal Objects
photo Jeff Busby
Although the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival lacked an overarching theme, any number of threads and correspondences connected individual events. Shows set in hotel rooms; performances for one; improvised street scenes; epic takes on classic texts: festival goers were challenged to compare the interlaced commonality of works while appraising their contrasts. A mosaic of Wittgensteinian family resemblance more than anything else, it was almost as if the various programmed events spoke to one another through the medium of the audience. It became something of an organic tissue of moments: any experience of a particular event couldn’t help but be inflected by the other performances, exhibitions and happenings to which one had borne witness. Is that what a festival allows its audience to become? A medium?

In this, incoming Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds has proven her mettle in going beyond the stated aim of opening up the festival to new audiences (something of a cliché in festival mission statements). Edmunds has demonstrated a keen eye for both the appetites of Melbourne audiences and the ways in which a festival can allow its patrons to enjoy works in juxtaposition and imbue the experience with a richness beyond individual moments.

Private Eye

IRAA Theatre’s Private Eye puts a flaming torch to the social contract between performer and audience. The solitary ticketholder is directed, alone, to a hotel room in one of the upper floors of the sumptuous Grand Hyatt, where he/she is greeted by director Renato Cuocolo. The furnishings are sparse, personal belongings of a coldly functional nature (a notepad, a suitcase, a diary) discretely placed amongst the cool environment of temporary lodgings. Cuocolo converses casually, mentioning the strangeness of living in hotels, of dwelling in unfamiliar cities, before explaining the odd situation which led to his hiring a private detective to observe and record the daily movements of his wife. Before long he directs his interlocuter to another suite higher in the building where his wife greets her guest in a far more intimate setting. Personal effects are scattered about, from a toy accordion to items of clothing. In the participant’s interaction with performer Roberta Bosetti, Private Eye’s exploration of voyeurism, game-playing and the power of the look are suddenly given new angles, the seductive closeness and privacy teasing out one’s presumptions of the audience/actor relationship and forcing the viewer to confront the deeper significances of watching another human perform. I noted that the name of the private eye in question was given as Hemmings, perhaps not so coincidentally the surname of the lead actor in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and it seemed a perfectly fitting offhand reference to the themes of ambiguous investigation, the exploration of identity and the changes wrought by close observation of an unknowable other. It would be irresponsible to reveal the twist which concludes the evening, but it is certainly one which gave me the most unsettling, almost cruelly humbling experience of the festival, if only because upon returning to street level I was unable to discuss the experience with other audience members. There were none.

Theatre for One

The title of Justin Harris’ Theatre for One: The Late Great Libido: Rock Opera is something of a misnomer, the work being rather a curious hybrid of multimedia, rock, micro-cinema and installation. The (once again) lone audience member is ushered into a curtain-lined booth at one end of which is a television-sized screen divided triptych-like. When the music begins, the 2 outside panels display a tiny landscape of silhouetted CGI performers (on one side a group of musicians, on the other a group of dancers) while the centre pane, sectioned by circular apertures, displays the disembodied head of Harris himself as vocalist. Harris and his minute accompanying band perform 4 big-beat numbers of the infectiously catchy variety, the animated characters articulating every bass slap and wailing sax solo with joyous precision. It’s tasty confectionary which offers little beyond its own purely transient pleasure; like IRAA’s work, there is no one with whom to immediately share the experience, but unlike Private Eye there is no sense of dialogue between audience and actor.


The pop flavour of Harris’ music and imagery eschews contemplation in favour of a distracted mode of viewing. By contrast, Bruce Mowson’s InfraCinema seeks to avoid such distraction by increasingly minimising any sense of a recognisable referent for its projected video images. Mowson has used infra-red technologies to reduce human figures and cityscapes to a level of abstraction often painterly in style but also profoundly (and deliberately) tedious. Gesturing towards the materialist cinema of the last century, the extended sequences of monotonous, only vaguely pulsating colour invoke similar visual works by Anish Kapoor and require their audience to reflect upon the ways in which they may engage with the artwork. There is no easy way into this presentation, and it is interesting to consider how similar pieces, such as Anthony McCall’s recently toured A Line Describing a Cone (RT66, p26), offer their viewer an “easy way out” via their historical and geographical distance, as well as their positioning as notable works through the mechanisms of art history and canonisation.


The audience for Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players’ Showcase is guided into (another) darkened hotel room, and soon enough confronted by a naked man (James Fletcher) lying abed alongside his shadow, an unnamed performer clad in head-to-toe black. The nude businessman begins to explain his situation, announcing the process which has led him to be here, alone in this room with only his shadow for company. There are intimations of sexual tragedy, direct addresses to the small audience, and an eventual dressing in which the bare vulnerability of the earlier oration is slowly covered by a neatly pressed suit. The text is delivered with minimal emotion, a blankness typical of the company’s style. But it is also confoundingly obtuse, circling its subject and forever disallowing deeper understanding of this man’s narrative.

Le Dernier Caravansérail

The displaced modern man of Showcase is put into sharp relief by other, more urgent figures of alienation appearing in the festival. The trope of the exile or displaced individual was iconic for much of the modernist art of the twentieth century, but in the process there often occurred a romanticisation of such figures at odds with the actual experiences under consideration. This is the danger facing any artistic work which seeks to address the diasporic experience: a poetics of exile is not sufficient to map out the political terrain in which exile occurs. To do this, we must first, in the words of Edward Saïd, “set aside Joyce and Nabokov and think instead of the uncountable masses for whom UN agencies have been created...the refugee-peasants with no prospect of returning home.” Ironically, Saïd himself was sometimes accused of the same romanticising of the refugee, but the point remains: to conflate the experiences of exiles, emigres, migrants, refugees, homeless or dispossessed persons into a single figure is a further form of oppression against those in question.

There is no central figure in Théâtre du Soleil’s Le Dernier Caravansérail. Instead, we are presented with an almost staggering number of tales, only sometimes overlapping. Authorial identity is dispersed to produce an almost ecstatic polyphony of narrative voices. The stories from which the piece arises are those of real people encountered by director Ariane Mnouchkine and her cast, and several of the performers themselves contributed personal histories as part of the piece. But more importantly, there is a sense of openness in this vast work entirely fitting with the frequent imagery of turbulent seas and rivers, constant motion and a lack of rootedness (most obviously symbolised in the way characters are never allowed to touch the ground, instead transported by wheeled platforms). If Caravansérail had at its core the figure of an orchestrating director or dramaturg, its meaning would be inextricable from this cult of personality, and as a result could be reduced to a work of personal expression. As it turns out, however, the piece seems to do its best to render its cast and crew transparent vehicles of meaning, dwarfed as they are by the massive space in which they perform.

Small Metal Objects

The spectators attending Back to Back’s Small Metal Objects were as much performers as mute witnesses, situated on a raked bank of seats at one end of the busy Flinders Street Station concourse. Equipped with individual headsets piping an evocative, plaintive score, the opening minutes of the performance saw the passing traffic take on a new significance as we were forced to simply watch the parade of life. When a leisurely paced dialogue between 2 friends joined the soundtrack, the speakers were invisible, somewhere out there amongst the crowd. Slowly they emerge from the other end of the station, companions indistinguishable from those around if it were not for the access we have been given to their private dialogue. Gary (Allan V Watt) is deep in conversation with Steve (Simon Laherty) when he is interrupted by a phone call from a high-powered businessman looking to organise a drug deal; though they are reluctant to disrupt their time together, Alan (Jim Russell) soon turns up to close the deal, enlisting the help of another powerbroker, the psychologist Carolyn (Genevieve Picot) to convince the duo to follow through with the negotiation.

Ordinary commuters were often startled at the sight of a mass of headphoned spectators observing their motions, and several approached the audience to ask questions, offer their thoughts or request spare change. While Gary and Steve were offered as individuals rendered invisible by the strictures of consumer society, we were made all too visible in our act of appropriation. Conversely, the drama played out before us bore testament to the way marginalised peoples are nevertheless inveigled into economic systems which see them only as resources—in this case, drug distribution acting as the dark flipside of economic rationalism.

Bloody Mess

It’s perplexing that so many reviewers appeared to take Forced Entertainment’s Bloody Mess at face value. Certainly, the performance lived up to its name by creating an apparently chaotic staged mayhem in which each performer’s ego prevents an actual ‘performance’ from taking place. Clowns, roadies, narcissistic thespians and a woman in a gorilla suit cavorted across the massive space enacting impromptu dance routines, launching into unfinished lectures or flinging popcorn, streamers and candy in all directions. To a certain point, there is an obvious ‘kitchen sink’ approach: anything and everything goes, as long as it doesn’t appear to add up to anything resembling a definite meaning or message.

But this simplistic reading seems to commit an injustice, ignoring the craft which has gone into producing a semblance of disorder. A great deal of care is required to create convincing chaos, and Bloody Mess in fact features very little that isn’t tightly planned and rehearsed. More importantly, this is a show about the twin poles of chaos and order, and even a cursory survey of the various recurring themes and motifs of the work reveals this to be the case. We repeatedly return to concepts of creation and destruction, whether it be the universe itself, human life, or the creation of a moment of art from the primordial soup of experience. Bloody Mess’s form is fully integrated with its content, offering as much of an experience of becoming as its various lectures and dance numbers.

The Odyssey

Malthouse Theatre’s The Odyssey was a mixed success, stumbling for some of the reasons Bloody Mess succeeded. This version of the classic tale also takes the road of excess, carnivalising Homer’s epic tale through daring aesthetic choices which too often come across as unmotivated, at times even indulgent. It is a lavish and visually arresting production: a rusted metal set evocative of a missile silo’s interior or a grinding turbine; costuming which bridges various periods of warfare from an American Civil War-styled Odysseus to a monstrous and seductive Circe in Nazi drag; a massive and bone-rattling score and sound design; and a complex lighting routine which keeps the space vital for its long running time. This version of The Odyssey makes its set and visual design a kind of character as much as the actors on stage. But its final form does not offer much of a challenge to its audience, essentially following a safe traditional structure somehow at odds with the exciting possibilities offered by the striking set and strong performances (Stephen Phillips impressive in the lead role).

* * *

Amongst the 2005 Festival’s diverse program, in which the audience’s role and self-awareness frequently became central, perhaps the most representative work turned out to be Guy Dartnell and Tom Morris’ Oogly Boogly, tucked away in that often overlooked festival corner: the family-friendly events. The audience for this improvised piece was limited to pre-lingual toddlers and their carers, and saw the performers imitating the actions of the children who quickly came to recognise the unexpected power afforded by this opportunity. Being as yet offspring-challenged, I wasn’t able to witness firsthand this experience, but all accounts suggest that the young participants were quick to immerse themselves in the proceedings. Perhaps it helped kickstart their introduction into that Lacanian mirror stage by which their misrecognition of the boundaries between self and world introduced their budding egos to social being. Perhaps the unusual pleasure of pulling an adult’s strings provided them a rare sense of respect from adults. And perhaps they weren’t so different from any other audience, at once witness, judge and performer—and medium.

Melbourne International Arts Festival: IRAA Theatre, Private Eye, Renato Cuocolo, Roberta Bosetti, Grand Hyatt, Oct 7-22; Justin Harris, Theatre for One: The Late Great Libido: Rock Opera, Federation Square, Oct 7-22; Bruce Mowson, InfraCinema, North Melbourne Town Hall, Oct 13-22; Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players, Showcase, Langham Hotel, Southbank, Oct 12-16; Théâtre du Soleil, Le Dernier Caravansérail, director Ariane Mnouchkine, Royal Exchange Building, Carlton, Oct 11-16; Back to Back Theatre Company, Small Metal Objects, concourse, Flinders Street Station, Oct 7-22; Forced Entertainment, Bloody Mess, The CUB Malthouse, Oct 6-10; Malthouse Theatre, The Odyssey, writer Tom Wright; director Michael Kantor, The Malthouse Workshop, Oct 6-23; Melbourne International Arts Festival, Oct 6-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 4,

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

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