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2017 Melbourne Festival Diary

Richard Watts

Snapshot reviews of this year's festival, updated regularly, including Taylor Mac's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music and the sublime In Plan.
2017 Melbourne Festival Diary

Taylor Mac opens Chapter Four of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Photo by Sarah Walker.

ArtsHub’s Performing Arts Editor, Richard Watts, missed the first few days of this year’s Melbourne Festival – a rare omission for him in over 20 years of arts journalism – as a consequence of attending the Australian Theatre Forum and National Youth Arts Summit in Adelaide last week. You can read some of the highlights of that trip here, here and here, with more coverage to come in the coming days.

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One of the shows he missed in Melbourne was the Festival’s opening night event, Taylor Mac’s The Inauguration, which ArtHub reviewer Raphael Solarsh described as ‘sublime’ in his own, recently published review.

In the coming days Richard will be seeing all 24 hours of Taylor’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, together with a range of other festival fare, including dance, theatre, live art, music and more. Here are his impressions of the festival to date, to be updated regularly between now and the festival’s climax on 22 October.

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Chapters Three & Four)
5 stars

Photo by Sarah Walker.

A week after this transformational, life-affirming epic performance and I’m still struggling to put its impact into words. Mac’s durational sojourn through the annals of American popular music was an intoxicating blend of history lesson and performance art; it created a vital new lens through which to examine what such songs say about the culture they represent. It was also a much-needed, radical faerie healing ritual at a time when toxic homophobia in Australia has reached fever pitch.

Chapter Three began by welcoming refugees onto the stage, with audience members enlisted to play successive waves of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia. Here, Mac gave us the songs of diaspora, written and sung in the overcrowded tenements of New York City. If only Australia was as welcoming to exiles now as the Forum Theatre was that night.

Audience participation continued with an hour featuring the songs of World War One, when Mac invited all men aged 14 to 40 onto the stage to represent the wounded and enlisted. Plastic body parts were thrown around with gay abandon, but when Mac performed the Irish ballad ‘Danny Boy,’ the tone switched effortlessly from cynicism to sincerity.

Mac’s generosity as an artist was revealed when local performer Mama Alto – one of the Dandy Minions performing ‘random acts of fabulousness’ and assisting throughout the show – was given the spotlight and asked to sing a number judy normally performs theirself; a short time later, Mac’s dramatic skills were displayed with a powerful and compelling reading from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Evoking the Great Depression, soup was served to all as the hobo anthem ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ rang out, and in one of the most poignant moments of the full 24 hour performance, Mac referenced the way some people can only make themselves feel free by imprisoning others, before launching into ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ Judy was accompanied by two young Indigenous men, Neil Morris and Brent Watkin; one on didgeridoo, the other accompanying Mac in language. It was a profoundly moving performance and resulted in a spontaneous standing ovation.

Next came zombies and zoot suit riots, the atomic age and rock and roll, with the night ending by enacting white flight from the city to the suburbs – evoked again by audience participation and an empathic enactment of the power of privilege. Mac ordered all the white people sitting in the central seating bank to move across to the sides of the theatre, and invited every person of colour in the theatre to occupy the empty seats. It was a startling manifestation of just how white Melbourne’s theatre-going public really is, and an electrifying end to the chapter.

Chapter Four began with both excitement and dread – none of us who had experienced Mac’s performances to date wanted the experience to end. By the end of the night people were weeping in their seats as Mac bade us farewell. In between came more remarkable moment – an electrifying cover of Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall’; dead Judy Garland carried through the theatre and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’; same-sex couples slow-dancing to notorious homophobe Ted Nugent’s ‘Snakeskin Cowboys’; backroom sex parties and a giant cock-fight between the USA and the USSR; and Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’, described by Mac as ‘the greatest make-out song ever written’.  

Mac’s cover of the Laurie Anderson song ‘O Superman’ sent shivers down the spine as the audience sung the ‘ah ah ah’ lines in unison; another hour focused on songs by queer artists including Marc Almond, Pansy Division and Tribe 8. The final hour of the show was Mac performing on stage alone, singing original songs and breaking our hearts just a little.

By the end of the night, the marriage equality vote was forgotten; Mac – ably assisted by Machine Dazzle's baroque and beautiful costumes, and a team of musicians led by Music Director, Matt Ray – had created ‘a little queer womb’ for us all, in which we nestled safe, secure and transported before being reborn. I can’t speak for everyone who experienced Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, but for myself, I left the Forum Theatre after the fourth and final chapter a little braver, a little stronger, and forever transformed. Isn’t that what great art is for?

The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir (Part 2, Songs 26—50)
3 ½ stars

The Magnetic Fields at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall. Photo by Greg Cristman.

Due to other commitments and general exhaustion, I missed part one of this performance by Stephin Merritt and band at Hamer Hall on Saturday. Part two, performed on Sunday afternoon, displayed Merritt’s musical misanthropy deliciously, though the first half of the evening suffered somewhat from muddy sound, with Merritt’s dryly witty lyrics a little low in the mix. Thankfully, the sound improved notably after interval.

50 Song Memoir is exactly what is says on a tin; an autobiographical concept album featuring a song for each year of Merritt’s life at the time of recording, written in a range of styles, but always incisive and engaging.

Played live, the concert version sees Merritt separated by his band by a screen fashioned in the shape of one of the old dolls’ houses he collects (the screen insulates Merritt, who suffers from hyperacusis, from potentially overwhelming, higher pitched sounds). Overhead, videos and song titles document Merritt’s path through life, from depressed New Yorker to even more depressed Los Angeleno.

Referencing everything from H.P. Lovecraft and sex with an ex, to post-9/11 New York in winter and the passions and perils of romance, 50 Song Memoir is a fascinating experience. One never quite gets the sense of knowing Merritt, as one might from a more intimate memoir – there’s a sense of him withholding facts and dancing around details – but the experience certainly gives one an enjoyable insight into Merritt’s unique, cynical yet romantic worldview.   

In Plan
4 ½ stars

First staged at Castlemaine State Festival in 2015, this ambitious dance work – choreographed by Michelle Heaven and designed by Ben Cobham – is challenging to review without revealing its secret joys. Staged in Malthouse Theatre’s cavernous workshop, the piece is a showcase of ingenious design and unusual perspectives. Inspired by two families’ daring escape from East Berlin in 1979, the story is abstracted, but its heart and bravery remain. Over the work’s 30 minute running time, a cast of three – Heaven herself, together with Caroline Meaden and Tra Mi Dinh – drift, dance and fly across a circular stage, accompanied by Bill McDonald’s score, as the audience watch enraptured. Aesthetically rich and skilfully crafted, the memories of this evocative production linger long after the 30 minute performance has concluded.  

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Chapters One & Two)
5 stars

Photo by Sarah Walker.

On the night Taylor Mac performed the first of four, six-hour concerts at the Forum Theatre, the New York cabaret star was awarded a US $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as a ‘genius grant’.

Mac made no mention of it on the night. Instead, judy (Mac’s preferred gender pronoun is the lower-case ‘judy’ rather than hir or them) focused on creating a palpable and remarkable sense of community among those present – a diverse audience ranging from scruffy young queers to pearl-wearing members of ‘the orchestra set’, as Mac described them. Forging this sense of connection between strangers is Taylor Mac’s true genius.

It’s not just the epic feat of performance, the dozens of supporting musicians and guest performers (including Meow Meow during Chapter One and the strong women of Circus Oz in Chapter Two) and Machine Dazzle’s gorgeously-OTT costumes that make A 24-Decade History of Popular Culture so unmissable at this year’s Melbourne Festival: it’s the sense of connection, empathy, community and understanding that Mac creates that is the real art made across these unforgettable 24 hours.

Over two chapters to date, spanning the years 1776 to 1896, Taylor Mac has involved us all in a ‘Radical Faerie realness ritual sacrifice’; educated audiences as to the origins of the once-mocking ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’; blindfolded us for an hour in order to encourage to embrace senses such as taste, touch and smell, and deconstructed the ‘heteronormative jukebox musical’.

In Chapter Two, Mac and friends brought tears to our eyes with a sorrowful version of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’; de-colonised Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado by setting it on Mars, and re-enacted the American Civil War with ping pong balls as weapons. History has been queered, cannibalism has been enacted, and the poetry of Walt Whitman has been justly celebrated.

As a performer, Taylor Mac is mercurial and magical; camp, quick-witted, vocally versatile and compelling. Ably supported by Music Director/Arranger Matt Ray and a team of talented musicians – one of who whom leaves the stage every hour – Mac’s Melbourne Festival performances are sure to take on legendary status, akin to Adelaide Festival’s famed all-night production of The Mahabharata in a quarry.

Transformative events like these are why arts festivals exist. Do whatever it takes to get a ticket.

Joep Beving
3 ½ stars

Image via www.festival.melbourne

It’s rare to see a simple, upright piano on stage at Melbourne Recital Centre, rarer still to see one opened up, its case partially removed in order to reveal in its inner workings and make its wires more accessible. It’s equally rare to see a shaggy-bearded Dutchman – looking more like a Brunswick hipster than a classical musician – perched awkwardly before such an instrument before coaxing moody magic from its keys.

There’s real charm to Joep Beving’s compositions; though relatively short, each piece is atmospheric, delicate, contemplative and cinematic. That said, like many recent cinematic scores, his pieces are also a trifle emotionless and forgettable. Longer, more sustained compositions might give Beving a greater opportunity to craft music with more lasting impact.

The Season
3 stars

The cast of The Season, presented by Tasmania Performs. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Since the beginning of time, the Duncan family have been muttonbirding on Big Dog Island in Bass Strait. It’s not only a family tradition – it’s an expression of their Indigenous culture, continued despite the disruption and trauma of invasion and more recently, the interference of bureaucracy.  But this year, things are a little different.

Patriarch Ben Duncan (Kelton Pell) is keenly aware of his larrikin son Ritchie (Luke Carroll) waiting impatiently in the wings and eager for his chance to take control of the birding. Simultaneously, matriarch Stella Duncan (Tammy Anderson) fears this may be her last season on the island.

Their daughters are present too; brash Marlene (Lisa Maza) and her sister Lou (Nazaree Dickerson), who now lives on the mainland, both of them with secrets they fear to share. Rounding out the family is Lou’s son, Clay (James Slee), making his first trip to Big Dog Island and anxious about embracing the family tradition.

Interloper Neil Watson, Ben’s arch-rival, and the interfering Senior Ranger Richard Hadgeman (both played by Trevor Jamieson) add a touch of friction to proceedings.

Written by Tasmanian playwright Nathan Maynard, a descendant of the chief of the Trawlwoolway Clan of north-eastern Tasmania, The Season is engaging, moving and often hilarious. Maynard’s depiction of family and tradition are keenly observed, and while some of his characters, most notably Stella Duncan, are a little too thinly drawn, all are brought to beautiful, boisterous life by the talented cast.

Plot elements sometimes lack weight and tension – such as one character’s anticlimactic coming out, or a revelation about another’s parentage – or occur too abruptly, without foreshadowing or dramatic heft (such a fire sparked by another character’s inexperience) but these faults are easily forgiven thanks in part to director Isaac Drandic’s confident hand on the tiller. There’s real heart to The Season, and its story is fresh and unfamiliar to mainlanders such as myself. Its warmth and humour linger long after the play’s final, magical moment.

Read: Andrea Simpson’s separate review of The Season

In Between Two
4 stars out of 5

James Mangohig and Joel Ma's In Between Two at Arts Centre Melbourne; photo by Sarah Walker.

In hip-hop, new music is created via sampling and remixing, with the final touch provided by an MC rapping over the top of the reordered tunes. Aptly, hip-hop artists Joel Ma (aka Joelistics) and James Mangohig have sampled and mixed together their personal histories to create this moving and exhilarating exploration of family, culture, racism and heritage.

The opening moments of In Between Two tell us much about what we need to know about the show. A kookaburra’s laugh is played over beats and live instruments, into which is mixed Pauline Hanson’s voice: a speech from the 1990s airing her toxic fears about Australia being ‘swamped by Asians’. Collectively, this soundscape tells us that the performance we’re about to see is a story of growing up Asian-Australian in the 1990s, and a story about two Australias: one which welcomes families of Filipino-Dutch and Chinese-Australian heritage, and the other which asks aggressively, “But where are you really from?”

Written and performed by Joel Ma (aka Joelistics) and James Mangohig, In Between Two is a vibrant example of the work being created by Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP); stories about everyday Australia which are sadly, rarely seen on our mainstages. Here, two very different stories about growing up are intertwined with firsthand experiences of racism, some of them shockingly blunt. We also hear stories about unconventional families, of losing faith, and of falling in love with music.

Live music is blended with pre-recorded tracks, and as the men’s stories unfold on stage, a selection of carefully selected archival images and home movies illustrate Ma and Mangohig’s families and histories. The end result, which finds a beautiful balance between the personal and the political, the musical and the theatrical, is skilfully crafted and highly engaging. A restrained and polite theatre crowd meant the two performers had to work extra hard to gain a response from the audience at the performance in question; one imagines it would be an even more engaging experience in less formal settings.

Expect this work to have a long life in festivals to come – it certainly deserves to.

All the Sex I’ve Ever Had
4 ½ stars out of 5

The cast of the Melbourne production of Mammalian Diving Reflex's All the Sex I've Ever Had. Image: Jim Lee Photo.

Deceptively simple but deeply moving, All the Sex I’ve Ever Had is a recent work from German-Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex, whose Haircuts by Children was a playful highlight of last year’s Melbourne Festival.

It’s a difficult piece to review – not because of the style of the show, which is grouped around a group of Melbourne seniors’ skilfully structured reminiscences about their love lives and sexual experiences – but because its audiences are sworn to secrecy about what they are about to see at the start of each performance.

So I can’t write about the work's details; about what was said by whom and how their words made me think about my own life, my own heartbreaks and passions, romances and one night stands. But I can tell you that it’s thrilling and life-affirming and ultimately, despite moments of loss and grief, that it's deliciously, beautifully hopeful. 

All the Sex I’ve Ever Had is a potent act of remembering; a powerful reminder of our universal need for intimacy and connection; a fearless, frank, honest and generous exploration of life in all its wet, warm, visceral and confronting detail. It engenders a deep sense of community in its audience; a spirit of trust and togetherness. It's deeply funny and deeply moving and one of the highlights of the festival to date.

Great art reminds us of what it means to be human. This work delivers that in spades. 

Please Continue (Hamlet)
3 stars out of 5

Actor Chris Ryan in yellow with the legal teams and judge; image by Jim Lee Photo.

From The Merchant of Venice to Twelve Angry Men, courtroom dramas have long fascinated theatre-makers and the theatre-going public alike. Created by Yan Duyvendak and Roger Bernat, Please Continue (Hamlet) puts a new spin on the genre by incorporating real-life members of the legal profession alongside professional actors, in a largely improvised trial based on a very familiar story.

Hamlet (a tightly wound Chris Ryan) is on trial for the murder of Polonious – although in this instance the crime took place in a small Collingwood flat instead of a castle in Elsinore. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (the superb Genevieve Picot) and Polonious’ grieving daughter Ophelia (Jessica Clarke), Hamlet’s now ex-girlfriend, are called as witnesses as the case unfolds.

A different legal team performed on each night of the production’s short run. Overseeing proceedings in this instance was Judge the Honourable Betty King QC, with Robert Richter QC prosecuting (assisted by Katherine Brazenor) and Philip Dunn QC with Tom Danos for the defence. At the end of the night, 12 audience members were called upon to carry out ‘an onerous duty – one we ask of all citizens’ and decide on Hamlet’s guilt on the evidence.

Though the legal teams’ inability to prepare for the production meant their arguments (especially the prosecution's) were relatively weak, it was fascinating to hear the usually underwritten Ophelia’s account of Hamlet’s cruelties towards her – Shakespeare's play does little to present a woman’s account of proceedings. Equally fascinating was a moment when Philip Dunn threw a meta-theatrical interrogation into proceedings by questioning Ophelia’s truthfulness as a witness, based on Jessica Clarke’s recent interview with Michael Cathcart on the ABC in which she'd expressed the hope Hamlet would be found guilty. ‘Ophelia was not interviewed by Michael Cathcart,’ Clarke replied coolly, one of several moments where all three actors impressed with their immediate and truthful responses.

Sadly, there was an unpleasant whiff of classism around proceedings – murders also happen in middle class homes as well as housing commission flats, and it’s arguably more likely that Polonious would have been safer hiding in a walk-in wardrobe in East Malvern than a Collingwood cupboard. The occasional titter from the audience when the criminality of Collingwood was mentioned further enhanced this impression.

But the greatest sin of the production is that it was only intermittently entertaining. Hamlet’s outbursts when Ophelia was giving evidence or his mother’s catcalls when Hamlet himself was in the stand, enlivened proceedings, but as anyone who has attended a trial knows, the occasional brilliant oratory or dramatic revelation are few and far between. Courtroom dramas work as theatre because the boring bits are chopped out – a lesson this production’s creators might wish to consider. Please Continue (Hamlet) is a fascinating experiment in fusing theatre and law, but one that's perhaps more interesting in concept than its ultimate execution.

Backbone
4 stars out of 5

The craft and intelligence of this production, the latest work from Adelaide-based circus company Gravity and Other Myths, is exceptional. Also exceptional are the obvious bonds between the troupe, who met as children at the youth circus company Cirkidz.

The degree of trust and rapport they have developed over almost 18 years together results in the creation of genuinely startling circus tricks, ranging from handstands as endurance art and a routine that takes pole-balancing to new levels, to more playful games involving stretched elastic snapped on bare stomachs – a sequence which echoes the ‘strip skipping’ game played in the company’s earlier work, A Simple Space. Instead of glitz and glamour the aesthetic is stripped back (sometimes literally, as performers disrobe and swap clothes on stage), allowing for greater focus on the troupe's athleticism, precision and skill. Geoff Cobham's exquisite lighting and a live score by Elliot Zoerner and Shenton Gregory further enhance proceedings, which are ably knitted together by director Darcy Grant.

One especially notable sequence comes in a routine in which the performers wear buckets on their heads, yet nonetheless manage to scramble atop one another’s shoulders to form a human ziggurat despite being effectively blindfolded by this temporary impediment. But while the stunt is impressive there’s perhaps a deeper message to be read in the sequence. The bucket-headed performers recall the armoured Kelly Gang – an iconic Australian image. Simultaneously one can read an earlier part of the sequence as a reference to burying one’s head in the sand – for sand and soil abound in this show. Is the stunt, at its heart, warning us about the dangers of a nostalgic world view and of a country whose political leaders are wilfully ignoring the present?

Great art is open to many interpretations, and this is definitely a great show. It’s not without flaws – at 75 minutes the pacing of a few scenes could be a trifle tighter, while the regular evocation of endurance as a theme became slightly repetitive. There’s also the occasional sense of the female performers lacking as much agency as their peers; they’re more regularly thrown around by the men than doing the throwing, Nonetheless, Backbone more than successfully demonstrates why Gravity and Other Myths are in such high demand on the international festival circuit: put simply, they’re tremendous. 

Caravan
3 ½ stars out of 5

Photo: Tim Grey

A new Australian tragicomedy, Caravan is a collaborative work created and performed by Susie Dee and Nicki Wilks. It marks the first time the pair, who have worked together for almost a decade on works including SHIT, Taxi and Animal, have performed together on stage – though in this instance the stage is an old caravan parked on the forecourt of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.

Within its walls – one of which folds down to reveal the cluttered interior – live Donna (Wilks) and her bedridden mother Judy (Dee). Over a single night we see the pair bicker and fight, cook and cajole, comfort and insult one another.

Judy, it seems, is dying, yet despite doctor’s orders she is desperate for a glass of wine, and will go to any extreme to get one. Donna has a fight of her own: to obtain the truth about her father’s identity from her mother’s pursed lips. Sometimes their interactions are playful, at other times shockingly cruel. Judy’s reliance on her daughter is made painfully explicit; even her sexual needs are predicated upon Donna’s Tinder affairs.

The script is written collaboratively by four exceptional local playwrights: Angus Cerini, Patricia Cornelius (one of Dee’s most established collaborators), Wayne Macauley and Melissa Reeves. Listening carefully one can hear hints of each writer’s individual voice – Cerini’s rapid, erratic poetry, Cornelius’ grasp of the vernacular – but for the most part their words blend well, providing Dee and Wilks with engaging, earthy and lively dialogue.

Australian filmmakers have regularly exploited the lives of the underclass for entertainment; there’s no such sense of exploitation here. Instead what we see is a mingled bruise of love and pride, pain and squalor; characters with depth and performances delivered with truth and empathy. The use of comedy sometimes detracts – it would be rewarding to see a deeper excavation of these damaged, co-dependent lives – but Caravan is still a confident, engaging and entertaining work which, at 75 minutes, never overstays its welcome. 

All of My Friends Were There
3 ½ stars out of 5

Sarah Walker Photography

‘One day, all of us will die,’ intones a sepulchral voice at the start of this latest live art experience by Victorian-based collective The Guerrilla Museum. I’m paraphrasing – it’s hard to take to notes at a birthday party, especially when there’s fairy bread to eat, shots to drink, furry artists to slow-dance with, and games of pass the parcel to play – but it’s true. After all, what else are birthday parties but gaudy signposts along the road which leads to our inevitable decline and decay?

As a friend’s birthday card once reminded me: ‘Another year older, another year closer to the grave.’

All of My Friends Were There encourages and entreats us to consider, remember and celebrate our own birthdays, as well as the birthdays of our nearest and dearest and even complete strangers.

Like The Guerrilla Museum’s last work, the transcendent Funeral (experienced by this writer in its original incarnation at the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival), this new production is life-affirming, unpredictable and near impossible to discuss without giving away some of its most important secrets.

At the beginning of the performance at St Kilda’s Theatre Works audiences are divided into groups, after which each person’s experiences will likely be dissimilar, although provided one is willing to embrace the spirit of proceedings, the dominant emotion will doubtless be delight.  

Timing issues occasionally slow down proceedings – not uncommon in the early iterations of any new work, especially one as complicated as this – but this is a minor flaw in such an uplifting and playful work.

All of My Friends Were There lacks the intense emotional impact and frisson of Funeral; then again, it’s a very different work, though still committed, complex and potentially transformative for the right, willing audience member. This reviewer walked out beaming into the Spring sunshine; a mood that lingered for hours thereafter. Thinking about the performance, and my response to it, still makes me smile days later.  

Melbourne Festival
www.festival.melbourne
4-22 October 2017

 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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