We’re Gonna Die – Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company

Wednesday 24 October, Fairfax Studio, Melbourne Arts Centre

 

I wanted to ask Young Jean Lee what she had for breakfast after seeing her Melbourne Festival show. Why? Well, I wanted her to tell me something I didn’t know. Does that sound harsh? Get ready for a rant because this is shit I don’t like.

Theoretically, I should have enjoyed this show immensely. It’s a blend of stuff I usually lap up — music, theatre, ruminations on the fragility of life, and the inevitability of death. Hell, even Lou Reed, one of my heroes, endorsed it. But I just sat there. Mildly engaged, slightly distracted, waiting for a revelation that, to be fair, I knew was never going to come. Young Jean Lee is nothing if not honest.

At the outset, she made it clear that she wasn’t going to make any profound revelations about mortality, and here’s her rationale, as I understand it: nobody is immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and there’s basically fuck-all we can do to avoid calamitous disease, decay and death. Yes, you can run on for a long time, but sooner or later you will be cut down — shat on, spat on, chewed up and turned to insignificant dust. Your heart will almost certainly be shattered, and your brain may even be splattered all over the long and winding road. There’s no point falling down on your knees and railing against the injustice of it all because, you guessed it, we’re all going to die. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and there’s little we can do to ease the pain of life except share war stories and listen empathetically (this helps one endure, apparently). That’s the extent of the woman’s thesis, I think. The pain of mortality is a banal fact of human existence. Ms. Lee’s take on the subject is understated and subtle, perhaps a little too understated and subtle.

Lee’s hour-long show basically comprises of monologues about bad shit that’s happened to her. From having her heart broken by her first real boyfriend to the tragic and apparently preventable death of her father, Lee shares her personal experience of how shitty life can be through stories and a collection of pop songs. She’s backed by a group of youngish musicians who look like cartoon hipsters wearing checked shirts, and casually tousled hair. The band is competent, but Lee’s simple tunes are as bland and inoffensive as the musicians’ clothes. They look and sound like a generic college band, which is in keeping with the slightly quirky, low-key aesthetic that Lee deliberately projects. The performance had the look and feel of a hastily thrown together fringe show, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but Lee comes with a serious reputation as one of America’s up and coming playwrights, so my expectations were, perhaps unreasonably, high.

Anyway, what ever happened to raging against the dying of the light?

Robert Forster

Thornbury Theatre, Friday 26 October, 2012

Robert Forster is not a great guitar player, as I’m sure he would concede. His limited repertoire of six-string moves consists of simple chords strummed as gently or frenetically as the song demands. Sure, he throws in the odd lick and rhythmic flourish here and there, but he essentially sticks to the basics. His voice is expressive, but his vocal range is limited, and it often sounds as though he’s speaking his lyrics rather than singing them. On paper you wouldn’t think he’d be suited to the solo singer/songwriter gig, yet his superlative songwriting ability more than compensates for what he lacks in technique and musicianship. How does he extract so much out of such an apparently limited technical palette?

Armed with just an acoustic guitar, and his wit, Forster seduced the enthusiastic crowd at the Thornbury Theatre by playing an eclectic crowd-pleasing set, which drew heavily on his glory days with the Go-Betweens, one of a group of outstandingly talented Australian bands from the 1980s who struggled to find mainstream success in their own country. Forster’s solo set covered a lot of ground, from melodic classics like ‘Spring Rain’ to quirky oddities like ‘Surfing Magazines’ to more wistful ruminations of the past in the form of ‘Darlinghurst Nights.’ He delivers his wry, literate lyrics are with confidence, and, more often than not, a laconic sense of irony. He also does a good line in witty stage patter (his observation that the thin black jumper is the male equivalent to the ubiquitous little black dress seemed to go down especially well with the mainly middle-age crowd who seemed to know most of Forster’s lyrics by heart).

The highlight of the evening was Forster’s rendition of ‘Street of Your Town’ — a song written and sung by the late Grant McLennan, Forster’s long-time friend and collaborator. McLennan had a great gift for melody, and Forster made a self-deprecating remark about his ability to do this Go-Betweens gem justice. He needn’t have worried, for he acquitted himself admirably with a little help from the audience whose background vocals sounded pitch-perfect — yes, there was a lot of love in the room. Another great gig at a wonderfully atmospheric venue.

Cam Butler: Save My Soul

ACMI 30 August, 2012

 

Cam Butler’s CD, Save Your Soul, is lush and romantic. The music has an epic quality that is effortlessly cinematic. It’s no surprise then that he commissioned a variety of filmmakers to add images to his compelling compositions, which combine orchestral strings with electric guitar. There is no doubting the quality of Butler’s music, which wears its influences subtly. However, the films that accompany the music are a mixed bag, and Butler’s ‘live’ appearance at ACMI was more like guitar karaoke than a concert. Armed with a guitar, amplifier, and an array of effects pedals, Butler played over a recording of his album sans guitar parts.

Butler is a man of few words. He comes across as a quiet, unassuming chap, but there’s a steely determination to his approach to music. I guess he lets his guitar do his talking for him. After being introduced by a friend, he just got on with the business of playing his instrument while the films were projected in quick succession with no commentary or explication. Butler’s guitar playing is as understated as the man himself. Always melodic and tasteful, he eschews histrionics and overt displays of virtuosity for its own sake. He’s no guitar slinger, which is in many ways his great virtue. He is the master of atmosphere and tone, which is why Save Your Soul lends itself so readily to the cinema.

The title track evokes Ennio Moriiconne without becoming a blatant stylistic copy, or meaningless pastiche, and the film attached to this composition is easily, for me, the most compelling of the collection. Jake Simkin’s images of Kabul, Afghanistan, portray a land of stark contrasts and quiet beauty, which is made all the more poignant by the spectator’s knowledge that this is a war zone. Simkin shows people going about their daily business, attending school, walking the streets, shopping at markets. He lingers on faces, old, young, male, female, and also includes eccentric, sometimes incongruous pictures of a body building contest, graffiti artwork, and a live TV show. Butler’s melodic music is sympathetic and emotional without becoming cloying or sentimental, and its rhythms complement Simkin’s manipulation of his video images, which are often played in slow motion, or with a time-lapse effect.

‘Simple Fate’ by Ana Diaz is a haunting dance video shot in black and white in Berlin.  Diaz alternates between moody studio shots that utilize shadows and shade to almost violent outdoor sequences in a Forrest with a dancer who looks a bit like Iggy Pop, and who displays a similar wild kinetic energy. The film is beautifully edited to the music, and is perhaps the most technically polished film in the collection.

I was less than impressed by the other material, but came away from the screening with a renewed enthusiasm for Butler’s music.

You can find the videos for the album here.

Sayonara: Android-Human Theatre

Seinendan Theatre Company & Ishiguro Laboratory

Arts Centre, 24 August, 2012

 

“The will not compete with life — rather it will go beyond it. It’s ideal will not be the flesh and blood but rather the body in trance — it will aim to clothe itself with a death-like beauty while exhaling a living spirit”

 

Edward Gordon Craig, ‘The Actor and the Über-Marionette’ 1907.

 

Bathed in the dim glow of a spotlight, Germinoid F, twitches and fidgets. I can just make out the strands of her straight, jet-black hair in the faint illumination, and, yes, in this lighting state it is difficult to identify her as an android. This moment of ambiguity is quickly shattered when the lights come up, and the performance commences. Germinoid F is most definitely an android, but her ‘acting’ is not going to give Meryl Streep or Cate Blanchett anything to worry about. She may be made from a variety of sophisticated materials, but her acting is most definitely wooden, and she’s not going to win any awards for improvisation. She is, after all, a kind of puppet.

 

As a purely technological phenomenon, Germinoid F is underwhelming. She can’t move, or speak without the aid of a pre-recorded human voice. She is literally rooted to the spot, and while her hair, skin and subtle body movements mimic those of a human, she’s not fooling anyone. Indeed, she’s not representing a human being at all, for Sayonara is a play about the interaction between humans and robots.  More specifically, it tells the story of a young girl who has a terminal illness, and is given a robot as a kind of caretaker/ companion. The robot reads the girl poetry, and engages in a series of exchanges about life and death, exchanges that resonate with the subtext of the play, which asks us to consider whether mortality defines humanity. In a way, Germinoid F is playing herself.

The relationship between the human and the non-human has a long lineage. Theologians and philosophers have often sought to define the human in terms of difference: humans have the power of speech, so they are different from animals, and non-organic matter; humans are distinctive because they have consciousness, or, more properly self-consciousness unlike other life forms. Heidegger famously argued that the human being, Dasein, is different from other kinds of beings because it is the only being that can contemplate the question of being itself. While Germinal F fails to qualify as human in any of the above terms, it is worth observing that contemporary philosophy appears to be skeptical of any absolute difference between the human, and non-human (have a look at Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am, or Agamben’s The Coming Community for a start). Unfortunately, Sayonara doesn’t really engage with any significant ideas about the human/non-human relationship that hasn’t been explored already, with more rigour and sophistication, in philosophy and science fiction. Star Trek’s ‘Data’ and Blade Runner’s Replicants (to name to two most obvious texts that explore the ways that robots unsettle easy conceptions of the human) provide a far more compelling treatment of the topic. However, I’ll concede that the theatre, Karel Čapek’s RUR aside, has rarely attempted to explore the philosophical problems raised by the development of androids, and I guess this is Sayonara’s most distinctive feature. Can the theatre exist without human actors? Well, animated film has proved that we can dispense with human bodies in the quest for thrills, spills, laughs and tears. I’m not sure the questions raised by android-human theatre are especially novel or interesting.

 

The program notes (and the audience questionnaire distributed at the performance’s conclusion) suggest that the creative team is most interested in the extent to which an audience can empathize and sympathize with an Android. The play has a coda, which sees the Android sent into a hazardous radioactive environment in place of a human. Now, even though the dialogue and acting were fairly pedestrian it was obvious that some members of the audience felt genuine emotion when the hapless Android was dispatched into the disaster area (in a somewhat heavy-handed reference to the recent nuclear accidents caused by earthquakes).

 

Given the right circumstances, and skilled craft, audiences can be made to identify with a wooden chair. We have been crying over fictional deaths and gnashing our teeth at the dastardly acts of unreal villains in novels and films for a long time. We don’t require the co-presence of a three dimensional human being to feel empathy, and, theatre lost any claims to being the exclusive domain of inspiring human emotion a long time ago.

 

I’m sure that it won’t be too long before a truly amazing android makes its stage debut, and Hirishi Ishiguro, might even be responsible for its appearance (he’s obviously one of the smartest people on the planet, and he proved to be an engaging and witty raconteur in the Q&A session that followed the performance of Sayonara). I’m just not sure that the quest to find the perfect human analogue in the form of an android actor will make a significant contribution to the quality of contemporary theatre, but who really knows what Ishiguro’s work might engender?