Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Moment On The Lips

A Moment On The Lips (Mad March Hare Theatre Company in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 25 March – 12 April 2014. By Jonathan Gavin, directed by Mackenzie Steele.

I loved this play from the moment I read the press release. A show that focuses on the bonds between women – sisters, friends, lovers – with an all-female cast? Oh yes. Oh HELLS YES. That is something I am immediately interested in. These are the types of relationships that are desperately under-explored. And call me selfish, but as a twenty-something woman, I am totes going to be into a show about other young women. Strange, I know.

So perhaps I went in with crazy high expectations, but A Moment On The Lips really bummed me out, because I did not get what I wanted from it at all.

There was a line at the end where one of the characters demands of the others, “so what are we going to do now? Sit around and think up clever new ways to be awful to each other?”. I thought that that pretty much captured the whole play. This was a show that basically revolved around women – sisters, friends, lovers – being awful to each other.

Two points. 1) I do not believe that characters have to be likeable for a show to be good. (Which is lucky, because none of the characters in this show are.) 2) I firmly believe that women can be and often are awful to each other. I’ve been awful to other women. Other women have been awful to me. It’s a thing that happens.

But OMG, the women in this show were SO UNRELENTINGLY awful to each other. And that was the problem. You couldn’t understand why they hung around each other: why the friends stayed friends, why the lovers stayed lovers, why the sisters kept talking to each other. You never, ever understood why they couldn’t stay away from each other. And I mean, sure, there are terribly unhealthy relationships where you’re bad for each other and mean to each other and still can’t stay away. But not every friend is a frenemy. I feel like A Moment On The Lips was shooting for “complex, messy female relationships” but ended up at “women being bitches to each other”.

This play didn’t ring true for me at all. Not that every play about young women should, like, replicate my life, but there was very little in here that resonated with me. Take, for example, the character of Rowena (Lucy Goleby), who is a PhD student writing a dissertation. That is not so far from my life. That’s something I recognise at once. But when she starts talking about her thesis, she’s immediately told to stop by the people that are supposed to be the closest to her. That is exactly the opposite of my experience. If people care about you, they’ll listen. Even if they’ve heard you talk about it a million times. Even if they think it’s boring.

That’s quite a specific example of a broader problem with the play. The dynamics of the female relationships just weren’t… right. This is one thing that I think Lena Dunham’s Girls does very well: while some of the characters can be totally unlikeable and are often terrible to each other, you still understand why they hang out with each other. Hannah and Jessa, for instance, have both been narcissistic and self-centred and showed little care for the feelings of others, but you still understand a) why their friends are still friends with them, and b) why they are still friends with each other. For all its other faults, this is also something I think Sex and the City did reasonably well at. Teen girl drama Pretty Little Liars has four girl leads, and while it has a spectacularised hyperbolic storyline, it is great at female friendship and its complexities. I didn’t find that in A Moment On The Lips at all, and it made me so, so sad.

The character I was the most engaged with was Emma (Claudia Barrie), probably because her relationships were the most complex and nuanced. She was the only one I really believed felt genuine affection for her friends: one of the play’s most accurate moments came, I thought, when she lied to her artist friend Victoria (Beth Aubrey) about liking her exhibition when she’d actually hated it. Her storyline, however, which involved her being stalked and almost murdered by someone who had seen her on TV, did not ring true. Other storylines did – the selfish Victoria reliant on her career being funded by her older sister Jenny (Sarah Aubrey), and being resentful when that money was taken away – but the relationships felt so one-dimensional that the story too became unbelievable.

I think the problem was that we don’t see any of the characters being really genuinely nice to each other until right at the end of the play. And that is just not how female friendship works. Sure, sometimes friendship is performed, but most of the time? Women like hanging out with other women. Genuinely. Really. For me, my female friendships are the most cherished relationships in my life. And if you’re going to do a show that centres around the bonds between women – whether they’re sisters, friends, or lovers – the pleasures of those bonds are something that need to be recognised.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

High Windows, Low Doorways

High Windows, Low Doorways (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from March 19 – 30. Written by Jonathan Ari Lander, Noelle Janaczewska, Katie Pollock, Alison Rooke, Mark Langham, Ellana Costa and Melita Rowston. Directed by Paul Gilchrist.

High Windows, Low Doorways is a series of monologues loosely focused around the theme of spirituality. Like many of subtlenuance’s productions, it’s layered and complex. There is a lot in this show to mull over. I thought it was beautifully curated and well performed.

 One of the things I liked the way in which the monologues often seemed to be in conversation with each other – not necessarily literally, but thematically. As a result, I thought the best way to write this review was in conversation with my theatre date, my friend Martin.

JODI: Hi Martin.

MARTIN: Hi Jodi.

JODI: So we’ve just been to see High Windows, Low Doorways. Tell me your initial impressions.


JODI: I won’t put the um in.

MARTIN: No, don’t put the um in.

JODI: Actually, I think ‘um’ might be a good place to begin. When approaching a subject as broad and intimidating as spirituality, our first instinct is often to say ‘um’.

MARTIN: Indeed. I was surprised by the lack of… religious content… or, content I would associate with ‘spirituality’ in my own concept of the term.

JODI: Can you explain that for me a little further?


JODI: Sorry, I realise this is a totally intimidating exercise. But then, religion is intimidating.

MARTIN: I didn’t identify the characters on stage as spiritual as such or the stories that they were telling as inherently spiritual. And I guess I was expecting people who were more religious in a day to day sense of the word. I think what we got was people explaining aspects of their lives that they loosely associate as spiritual. And… I had a very sort of spiritual childhood and half of my teenage years were the same and… um… yeah. I thought we would experience people who had more of a day to day connection with the spiritual. But it was something else.

JODI: Not being especially spiritual myself, I found the pieces I connected with most were the ones associated with spirituality and childhood – I went to a Catholic primary school and so a lot of that resonated with me very strongly. However, I’m not sure whether spirituality per se was actually what the focus was. I feel like more of it – and maybe this ties into you not feeling the experiences related as particularly spiritual – was more to do with ritual than with actual belief. Would you agree?

MARTIN: Absolutely.

JODI: There’s a concept in Islam that I’ve always quite liked when applied to religion more broadly. They distinguish between islam – the vertical relationship between person and god – and iman – the horizontal relationships between members of a religious community. I feel like what was explored here was much more iman, and I feel like ‘spirituality’ would be much more islam – a personal, rather than communal experience.

MARTIN: Yes. And it is interesting to note that I think every story that was told in this piece of theatre involved someone’s relationship with a family member or friends – in one case, a teacher at school. They all connected with this theme of spirituality through people within their own social or community networks.

JODI: Totally true. One was about a guy and his grandma, another about a Lao girl and her culture, another about an oppressively discriminatory school experience… but not very much about gods or actual personal belief. And I wonder whether that was the thing missing. The only real gesture towards gods we got were hymns, and a lot of the time, they rang quite hollow for me. What did you think?

MARTIN: Yes, I thought of the hymns as theatrical embellishment – a nice way to break up the style of presentation. But not a moment of… spiritual connection or… prayer, I guess? In the way that I’ve experienced it from childhood.

JODI: That was what was missing, wasn’t it? That notion of prayer?

MARTIN: Yes. I would agree with that.

JODI: Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I find it quite interesting that most of the associations with this theme were ritualistic – that is, social – rather than individual or personal. I wanted that notion to be explored more, unpacked and unpicked, I guess. But in this medium, where you have seven different writers creating seven different pieces, I wonder how much room there was to do that.

MARTIN: I see that point of view. And I also – from my own personal experiences, feel like that [individually spiritual] aspect of religion is becoming more and more rare in our society. Personally, I feel that this reflects my own journey that I’ve taken in life away from that personal relationship with gods towards a more communal one.

JODI: I wonder what this says about communities. Do we in fact worship our communities in a religious sense? I don’t really know.

MARTIN: I think that my own personal relationships have replaced for me that thing that the religious aspect of my childhood fulfilled, so I would support that.

JODI: So would the show, I think. There was a lot of loneliness there. Would you agree?

MARTIN: Yes. There was a lot of the single person reflecting on memories of relationships but doing so in such a way that they felt like they were alone even though they were communicating to the audience.

JODI: Personally, I found the piece set in a Christian high school quite affecting, probably because I could relate to it – that basically was my school experience. Were there any that stood out to you in particular?

MARTIN: I did relate to that one as well, having gone to a religious school. I really connected with the story about a person who was having a bad year and kept finding feathers in various places and that moment where she just spills everything in a prayer in a Buddhist temple… I related to that moment where you just break down and spill everything as a last resort as an effective way of dealing with that kind of situation.

JODI: That one took me back to a moment when I was in Malaysia a few years ago and I did something similar – though nowhere near as dramatic. I remember being in a Buddhist temple and hanging a kind of wish ribbon on a tree and just really sincerely imbuing it with wishes about all these worries I had and… it seems quite minor in the scheme of my life, you know, but it was one of those moments that sticks in your mind.

MARTIN: I had a very similar experience in a church in Poland. I do remember it quite vividly… I do think it was a turning point for me. It might have been the last time I really prayed.

JODI: Which is why I found it so interesting that this show focused so much on ritual – rituals stay with us, even if belief does not. I think that was really the common theme echoed throughout, and it resonated with me.

MARTIN: Me too.

JODI: Any closing remarks you want to make about the show?

MARTIN: It’s interesting having a conversation about it because I feel like the impact for me has been felt more on reflection than during the performance. Maybe that’s a credit to the show.

JODI: I think it’s a thought provoking show – maybe not one that you’re glued to the whole time, but definitely one that you have to mull over afterwards. Thank you for chatting with me post-show, Martini.

MARTIN: Pleasure, McAlister.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

My review of Ganesh Versus The Third Reich (Back to Back Theatre) at Carriageworks is now up at Australian Stage. Check it out here.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

seven kilometres north-east

Seven kilometres north-east (Version 1.0) runs at the Seymour Centre from March 8 - March 22 2014. Devised and performed by Kym Vercoe.
It’s hard to know where to begin to write about seven kilometres north-east. There is so much in this piece: travel and history and beauty and coffee and atrocity. It’s an intense experience, the kind of theatre that can leave you a little short of breath. I’m going to be thinking about this piece for a long, long time.

Devised and performed by Kym Vercoe, seven kilometres north-east is the story of her travelling alone in the Balkans and falling in love with the area. One night, on the advice of a travel guide she refers to as “the Bible”, she stays in a health spa seven kilometres north-east of Višegrad, a small town on the river Drina. On her return to Australia, she does some research and realises that Višegrad was the site of horrific ethnic cleansing in the 1990s and that this health spa was Vilina Vlas, a rape camp. On her return to the Balkans a couple of years later, she returns to Višegrad, forced to come to terms with the hideous history underpinning its idyllic surrounding: history which is so awfully, terribly recent. The eleven-arched bridge of Višegrad might have been built in the sixteenth century, but not even twenty years have passed since it was the site of countless murders.

This show is not a history lesson. It is not a travel memoir. Most importantly, Vercoe does not attempt to co-opt this narrative, from a culture admittedly not her own, for herself. Instead, the underpinning question of the piece is, “what am I supposed to do with this information?”. I liked the way that Vercoe, her journals, and the videos she took in the Balkans were the lens through which we viewed this show. At one point, she talks about walking around Višegrad on her second journey, unable to cope with the fact that the people she was passing on the street might have been complicit with or actively involved with the social genocide, and the only way she could cope with it was to look through her camera, to turn it into horror on the small screen. She successfully uses this lens on us as an audience, making the political personal. (The final image of the show is a perfect visual example of this. It is gutwrenching, a potent visual reminder of the way that the horrors of history were performed on the bodies of individuals.)

Parts of this show made me feel physically short of breath. Not because it was gratuitous – it wasn’t, not at all. But the images Vercoe evokes are so, so powerful. Perhaps the most potent is to do with Višegrad’s eleven-arched bridge, a repeatedly echoed visual motif throughout the show. There’s one scene in particular which I think I’m going to remember for a long time: an almost joyous scene set to A-Ha’s Take On Me. The simple act of dancing and the dirt and the bridge… wow.

Seven kilometres north-east is not misery porn, although with this subject matter, it easily could have been. Nor does it set out be a history lesson, although I definitely feel like I learned something (a lot of somethings). It’s intense theatre – if you’re looking for light entertainment, then this is not the show for you. It’s thoughtful and provocative and haunting, and I recommend it highly.  

Friday, March 7, 2014

Stop Kiss

Stop Kiss (Unlikely Productions) runs at ATYP from 5 March – 22 March 214. By Diana Son, directed by Anthony Skuse.

Stop Kiss is the third show directed by Anthony Skuse I’ve seen this year, and the third one I’ve adored. If you want to look for a Director of the Year, I think we have an early favourite. Skuse is ON FIRE, yo.

I loved Stop Kiss. I LOVED it. It made me feel, and it made me think, and if a show can do these two things, it has got me, wholeheartedly and uncomplicatedly. This show did both. It is a show about love and a show about violence, a show about pleasure and a show about pain, a show about friendship and a show about something infinitely more agonising. And I loved it.

Stop Kiss follows Callie (Olivia Stambouliah, in a bravura performance), a traffic weather reporter who lives in New York City. She’s agreed to look after the cat of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, Sara (Gabrielle Scawthorn), but doesn’t count on the intense friendship that forms afterwards. At the heart of this play is a kiss. At the heart of this play is a beating. The non-linear structure follows the journey before and after, to the moment where things between Callie and Sara changed forever, to the moment where everything exploded. (The structure reminded me a lot of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, which ends with a beautiful love scene: the scene that sparks many of the horrific events that take place during the book.)

There is so much I want to say about the construction of love and femininity in this play that I don’t think I’ll fit it all in. Stop Kiss is the story of a beautiful tragic love affair, and it made me happy and made me cry. It’s an accurate picture of how things are for women – especially, but not limited to, lesbian women – and that is why it grabbed me so particularly. It’s the story of how hard it is for so many women to admit how they feel: to not say what they DON’T feel, but to say what they do feel. It’s so easy to say what you don’t want, but it is so, so hard to say what you want. (There was a study a few years back that found that most people define their tastes by what they don’t like than what they do. Truthfully admitting that you like something or that you want something is HARD.) It’s the story of a proscribed desire, a beautiful desire, a desire that should be admitted, that rightly should be admitted, but when it is admitted, leads to horrible results, because the world is not yet beautiful enough for it.

There is so much I recognised in this play. So much. The way that Callie struggled to admit how she felt and what she wanted, to confess her desires… that is so familiar. This is not just her desire for her friend Sara, although that is a big part of it. Callie can’t admit what she wants for her career, for her social life, for her life in general. And that is so symptomatic of what women are culturally taught to feel. Michelle Fine wrote in 1988 about the “missing discourse of desire” for girls, a behaviour I think many of us have carried into adulthood. As a straight lady, I don’t share that added burden that Callie has as a lady with lesbian leanings, but… oh god, I recognised so much of myself and of the women I know in her. And in Sara, that woman encouraging Callie to say what she felt, to admit her desires, the woman who reaches for her dreams even when everyone tells her they’re wrong, the woman who refuses to sit down and shut up, to “walk on by” when something is wrong… I’ve been her, too. And being her isn’t easy, and yes, it will get you punished – maybe not as literally as Sara is, but punished nonetheless.

Every so often, you come across a show that speaks to you. I did not expect that show to be Stop Kiss, but it was. I felt like I got this show and this show got me, on a really deep level. There were events in this show I have not experienced (and hope never to experience), but there was so much that I recognised. This show made me laugh and it made me cry not because it looked like my life but because it spoke to my life. This is not the only time an Anthony Skuse-directed show has done that to me this year (I’m looking at you, On The Shore Of The Wide World), and I’m beginning to think he might be a little bit magic.

Go and see this show. Especially if you are a woman in your 20s or 30s, but seriously, everyone, go and this show. Stambouliah and Scawthorn are outstanding, and Skuse has directed an incredible production. If you know what it’s like to have trouble saying what you want or what you feel – to feel like the world is hemming you in and there are things you have to do, because…  you know, you just have to – then this show is for you.