Caroline Nin

March, 15, 2013

The famous Spiegeltent is packed on this balmy summer evening. The audience is mostly old and grey, stuffed into every nook and cranny. The house lights dim, the piano and double bass fill the space with melody, as the chanteuse steps into the spotlight and sings a suite of songs, mostly about love and loss, mostly drawn from the repertoire of Edith Piaf.

Caroline Nin is a consummate performer, a master of the art of cabaret, and an exquisite interpreter of the little sparrow’s songbook. She prefaces each number with evocative explications of the French lyrics. She expertly delivers these mini dramatic monologues, which are so much more than literal translations of songs, to set the scene, and create a context for each number for those who do not speak French.

She’s sexy, sassy and supremely confident. Her accompanists are nothing less than brilliant, totally in tune with their mistress, they don’t miss a beat. They know when to hold back, when to pause, and when to put the hammer down. Nin sings most of the best known Piaf tunes — La Vien Rose, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Padam, Mon Dieu — and airs a few lesser known gems for the aficionados.

Nin channels Piaf’s spirit without being a slavish imitator, or a cheap impersonator. And she has the most gorgeous accent — she speaks impeccable English with a chic, Gallic grace. What’s not to like?

20130401-094546.jpg

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich

GANESH_sm

Back-to-Back Theatre

Geelong Performing Arts Centre, March 3, 2013

 

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a play about power. It is, as one cast member puts it, a very powerful play. Most critics and audiences concur. There’s no doubt that Back to Back theatre have produced an engaging and highly unsettling work, yet it raises questions about the ethics of its own creative process and the audience’s consumption of the work that cannot be easily resolved. This ethical ambiguity makes it one of the most intellectually ambitious, and emotionally harrowing pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

Ganesh 2

Back-to-Back theatre is a unique company. Some of its members have intellectual disabilities, and these disabled people work alongside ‘normal’ artists under the artistic direction of Bruce Gladwin. Together they have produced a multi-layered work about power, representation and appropriation. In short, the play is about the politics of making a play with intellectually disabled people who may or may not be fully aware of what they are doing. This is a piece of meta-theatre that skillfully weaves its two narrative threads together in a mutually enriching manner. One story concerns the Hindu deity Ganesh, the elephant god, who is on a mission to reclaim his sacred symbol, the swastika, from the Nazis. This is a story suffused with myth, an apparently simple tale of good versus evil, right against wrong. Ganesh is a hero who must overcome a variety of obstacles before realising his goal, and defeating the evil Nazis.

 

The other story is about the process of devising this first tale, and presents the power dynamics involved in the creative process. David Woods plays a director who is attempting to shape and rehearse the Ganesh story. The choice of pitting Ganesh against the Nazis is an inspired one. The Nazis, as we all know, we are obsessed with racial purity, and attempted to exterminate those members of its own population deemed degenerate or abnormal. The notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele, the so-called ‘Angel of Death’, conducted experiments on so-called ‘mongoloids’ in the interests of ‘science’. The Nazis are the perfect villains, and Ganesh’s quest to re appropriate the Nazi symbol is righteous. The Nazis remain exemplars of fascism, and authoritarianism. David Woods’ character is a mostly benevolent dictator who is prone to fits of inchoate rage when things don’t go his way during the rehearsal process. He has what we might call an  ‘artistic’ temperament’ and becomes frustrated with his collaborators throughout the play. His dictatorial behaviour turns him into a little Hitler (another person with an artistic temperament — let’s not forget that Hitler was a failed artist).

Ganesh Projection

The Ganesh story is told with the aid a series of ingeniously simple techniques — masks, projections, and conventional stage lighting, which are visually stunning, but it’s the rehearsal that makes the most impact on the audience. The director treats his charges with tenderness and compassion at times, but he is also capable of losing his religion, and humiliating his cast when he loses patience with their limitations as actors. The play overtly draws attention to the fact that we, the audience, are watching actors who may have difficulty comprehending the distinction between fact and fiction, play and world. How is it possible to negotiate the ethics of working with people who may not be able to fully consent to the rehearsal process? And why do audiences attend Back-to-Back shows? What are they looking at exactly? These are some of the questions that the play raises. At one point Woods suggests that audiences want to see a ‘freak’ show, and the final image of the play which has one of the disabled actors framed by lights around the underside of a desk echoes this observation.

 

At another point, the director claims that the story in theatre, and other forms of dramatic entertainment like reality TV, is beside the point. Audiences, he claims, want to see real emotion, fraught situations, power dynamics. So, the quality of the food in Master Chef doesn’t really matter. The audience wants to see tears, they, we, want to see the ugly power dynamics involved when people are divided into masters and slaves. Reality TV is about manufacturing heightened emotions by turning, for example, weight loss, into a grotesque spectacle or ritual humiliation. It matters less how many kilos evaporate in the gymnasium than how many tears are shed in the dissolution of a hapless contestant’s self respect and dignity. The director in the play, superbly played by David Woods, throws this insight about the politics of spectatorship at his audience. Why are we in the theatre? Are we watching a ‘freak show’?

 

Of course, exposing the ethical problems associated with making Ganesh Versus the Third Reich does not absolve the company itself from its complicity with the power mechanisms that are involved in the play. To what extent does the theatre company treat their actors like ‘freaks’? To what do they exploit them? Such complex ethical questions cannot be resolved. The play, in many ways confounds stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities while simultaneously creating the uneasy suspicion that the play is some kind of freak show.

Ganesh 3

Perhaps it might be more productive to think of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich as a Foucauldian power play. Michel Foucault consistently railed against the normative tendencies in the administration of social and political life, against the way institutions categorise and sort people into specific classes in order to maximise their productivity. He also claimed that power is never simply possessed by any specific person or institution. Rather, it makes more sense to speak of power relations that are always at play in every human transaction. Power may oppress, but it may also provide a starting point for resistance, it might also function as a positive force that unsettles the desire for normativity. Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a play about Power Relations. Make no mistake, this is a stone cold classic, and theatre rarely gets to be this good.

The Wild Duck

Malthouse Theatre, 14 March 2012

(I forgot to post this earlier this year)

Written by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Ibsen

the-wild-duck

 

I didn’t think I’d like this production having endured Simon Stone’s laborious and pretentious version of Brecht’s Baal last year, but, I’ve got to concede that the Belvoir Street young guns delivered the goods with their take on Ibsen’s masterpiece, The Wild Duck. But let’s be clear, this is not Ibsen’s play as such. Now some folks might have a problem with a work that throws out Ibsen’s dialogue, but keeps its structure intact. I’m not one of them. Besides, Stone clearly declares his hand by stating that his production is merely after Ibsen. Pedants and conservative critics will moan about such a gambit, but I think it’s a stroke of genius, and one that results in compelling, if not great, theatre.

duck 1

The play is one of the Norwegian master’s best-known works for good reason. Like all his best writing for the stage, it exposes the cracks and fault lines in conventional verities about human behavior. For me, it’s always been a play about fanaticism, a cautionary tale about the relentless pursuit of the truth for its own sake without regard for consequences. The quest for truth is always noble, right? How can anything other than the truth sustain our lives and relationships? Ibsen deftly unsettles any simple understanding of the relationship between truth and untruth in his domestic tragedy, which culminates in the death of a young girl, Hedvig, who discovers the unsavory ‘truth’ about her parentage (I hate supplying plot summaries, so if you haven’t read the play you can find it here).

2-the-wild-duck-toby-schmitz-ewen-leslie-photo-heidrun-lohr

The fanatic, in Ibsen’s text, Gregers Werle is convinced that he must expose the hypocrisy at the heart the marriage between Hjalmar and Gina Ekdal, Hedvig’s loving parents. Long story short, Hjalmer is not Hedvig’s father. The girl’s biological father is none other than Gregers’ old man, a rich old capitalist. Yes, this is a play about Daddy issues, and it has more than its fair share of Oedipal overtones.

Stone’s production makes Gregers Werle a much more reasonable, and sympathetic character, so the theme of fanaticism is muted. In fact, it’s a totally different play in many respects. It’s set in contemporary Australia for starters, and the characters speak with colloquial Aussie accents. Stone replaces Ibsen’s dialogue with his own original text (which he developed with Chris Ryan). This ensures that the jokes are funny, the cultural references are topical and the audience can more easily suspend disbelief (most existing English translations are lousy, and almost impossible to stage successfully).

Stone retains the structure, or the architecture of Ibsen’s original text, and this gives his work a solid dramatic foundation. This is not plagiarism. It’s common sense. There are only a limited amount of stories in the world, structurally speaking, and there is no harm done when an artist borrows the structure of another work. Many great artists have done this: Shakespeare, Kurasowa, Bob Dylan. Stone’s approach to this classic work is akin to a folksinger’s rewriting of an ancient ballad, which respects the traditional source by adapting it and making it resonate with the present.

Stone and his creative team find a way to make this great old text work on the contemporary stage by moving away from treating the text as a sacred object, or trying to produce an ‘authentic’ historical version of the play. They take a number of creative risks that pay high dividends. The set design, for example, is as startling and original as any that I’ve seen. The entire set is enclosed in a large Perspex box. The actors’ voices are amplified and fed through the theatre’s PA system. At times, the audience can clearly view their own reflection in the structure that envelopes and contains the action. Props are minimal, and there is no attempt to render a contemporary version of ‘naturalism’. This unique spatial configuration gives the work a televisual aspect, and at times the play comes across a bit like an Aussie soap opera. This is actually a strength insofar as it underscores the domestic themes present in Ibsen’s original text, and contemporary media.

This is not to say that the production is without flaws. The last scene, which occurs outside the Perspex enclosure, is unconvincing. Hedvig’s grieving parents have one last awkward encounter, which tries a little too hard to resolve issues that are perhaps best left hanging in the minds of the spectators. This is a relatively minor criticism of a bold and popular work. Adaptations are never easy. They require a great deal of skill and talent. Don’t believe me? Have a go at ‘ripping off’ an Ibsen play yourself. Ghosts is ripe for a contemporary makeover. Any takers? Go on, you know you want to.

JB Smoove

Thornbury Theatre, 15 December, 2012

JB 1 crop

JB Smoove bounds onto the stage to the sound of loud Hip Hop music, and unleashes a torrent of high-octane, expletive-ridden, patter that establishes his credentials as one bad mofo. This guy doesn’t let up. He makes a ruckus! I don’t know what he’s on, but I’ve got to get me some of that shit. He maintains a punishing pace throughout the best part of his 90-minute routine, which pulls out all stops. He spits out one hilarious tale after another, riffing like a jazz musician on a series of classic comedy themes, while illustrating his act with a repertoire of uproarious moves, grooves, and sound effects — he knows how to work a microphone as a prop and as an effects machine. He taps, smashes, and genuinely abuses his SM 58 in the service of his high-energy act, which makes it clear that JB is a distinct entity from Leon Black, the character he plays on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and whose success has given his career a monumental boost.

Smoove is a physical comedian who makes the most of his, pliable expressive face, which he twists and contorts to great effect. He rarely sits still, preferring action to mere stand-up. On one level, he shouldn’t be nearly as funny as he actually is. Most of his routines are politically incorrect rants about sex. We learn that he likes ‘bitches’ in high heels, that he produces prodigious quantities of cum, and that it’s important to give your bitch tittie attention, if you want to keep her satisfied. He also gives the audience occupational health and safety tips on how to have sex standing up without putting your back out, along with several other suggestions for keeping things hot in the bedroom. He gets away with this macho shit because he has an excess of attitude and charm, which, for me at least, neutralises the aggressive tone of his material. JB knows how to take the piss out of himself, and his swaggering, sexually potent persona is an ironic exaggeration, which is oddly endearing.

JB 2

To be fair, some of his funniest stories are not about sex. His extended yarn about the pleasures and perils of New York City hot dogs, for example, made the audience hoot and holler. The audience clearly loved him, and he managed to work in a few local references, which didn’t come across as cheesy, or forced. Leon discovered Tim Tams, and used his newfound taste for our national confection as a running gag. He even invited a member of the audience on stage to reprise one of his Leon Black scenes — the local lad delivered a creditable version of Leon, while JB stood in for the absent Larry David.

smoove and Larry

JB is a hard working guy. Not only did he deliver an utterly compelling, if somewhat anarchic show, but he moved into the theatre’s foyer immediately after the performance to sign autographs and take photographs with his appreciative fans. He promised to return to Australia, and I have no doubt he’ll redeem his pledge. I’m also sure he’ll be playing a much bigger venue when he returns. The man is a star. Yep, this is shot I like.

 

 

An Enemy of the People

Schaubühne Berlin, directed by Thomas Ostermeier,adapted by Florian Borchmeyer

Melbourne Arts Centre, October 24, 2012

Make no mistake; this is a fundamentally political play in the Aristotelian sense. The ancient Greek philosopher called ‘man’ the political animal for his ability to act in accordance with the common good. Put differently, politics, for Aristotle, is about collective action in the pursuit of the good life, which necessarily places limitations on unfettered individual liberty. Of course, this is not a position that everybody accepts. The history of political science shows how difficult it is to reconcile freedom and authority, and we only need look at the hysterical anti-government rants of the Tea Party to confirm that the collective good is not a high priority for a lot of people, many of whom stubbornly cling to an impossibly romantic conception of the sovereign self — the self-serving, self-identical ‘I’. But let’s not celebrate communalism uncritically, either. JS Mill persuasively argued against the tyranny of majority opinion in his classic essay ‘On Liberty’ in order to underscore the dangers of accepting the popular opinion over the recalcitrant beliefs of a stubborn individual. In any case, politics must contend with the tension between the individual and the community, and, in broad terms, the left/right divide is often framed in terms of apparent opposition between collectivity and defiant individualism, an opposition that is increasingly untenable today.

 

Thomas Ostermeier’s interpretation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People unsettles this opposition by demonstrating how the individual and the collective are necessarily enmeshed and entwined. In fact, it’s difficult to avoid reading the play as a deconstruction of politics, and the sovereign subject. Before the performance begins, the audience is confronted with a quotation from The Coming Insurrection, a political manifesto posted on the Internet by an anti-capitalist group of French anarchists. The text, printed in large black type on a semi-transparent mesh that acts a curtain, analyses the advertising catch phrase ‘I am what I am’ used by Reebok in 2005. It points to the loss of critical distance in a world dominated by the what Guy Debord called the spectacle, the proliferation of images that literally give us our sense of identity. Capitalism, the quotation argues, has colonized the self. Our dreams, our wishes, our desires, our innermost feelings, our political convictions are shaped by the capital — the ‘I’ is a commodity given shape and substance by its patterns of consumption. I buy, therefore I am. So where does this leave the lone wolf, the crusading individual who rails against injustice, and seeks to bring the light of truth into the depraved and corrupt world of petty politics?

Dr Thomas Stockmann is the hero of Ibsen’s play. He is employed as the medical officer of the Municipal Baths in a small coastal town in Norway. He discovers that contaminated water is poisoning the Baths’ patrons, and embarks on a crusade to set things right. Unfortunately, the town’s economy is dependent on tourism, and the cost of finding an unsullied water supply is prohibitive. Stockmann’s older brother, Peter, is the town’s mayor, and while he initially appears to support the doctor’s plan to close down the Baths he quickly realizes that his life, and the lives of the vast majority of the townsfolk would be ruined by the revelation that the Baths are a health hazard. Similarly, Stockmann’s journalist friends lose the courage of their convictions when they, too, realize the scandal will ruin that their livelihoods and career aspirations. The play is a bit like the film, Jaws, which also presents a scenario that pits profit before public safety.

 

Ostermeier transposes Ibsen’s world to present day Germany, and remains pretty faithful to Ibsen’s text in most respects, but his detours from the Norwegian master, however, are significant, and constitute the most compelling and audacious moments in this thoughtful production. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is a stylish production in many ways — the set is simple, and consists of a various tables, chairs, and couches that are moved as the scene demands. The contemporary setting works for the most part. The Stockmann family comprise of the doctor, his wife and their infant child (a minor re-writing of Ibsen’s original text which gives the family two older children). They are ‘cool’ middle-class people, hipsters who play in a part-time band with their friends, journalists who work for the local paper. They have good taste in music, and we are treated to renditions of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’ and Jackson Brown’s ‘These Days’ among other tunes. The actors acquit themselves admirably as musicians, and establish a cozy, comfortable ambience, which is disturbed when a scientific report on the quality of the Baths’ water confirms Stockmann’s suspicions. One by one Stockmann’s friends and presumed allies back away from supporting his unpopular view, leaving him to fight the good fight by himself — he because the lone voice of reason, and Ibsen’s text makes him a laudable and sympathetic figure.

 

It’s easy to see why Ostermeier chose to stage this work. It resonates with so many topical issues. The reluctance of the town’s Mayor and journalists to accept Stockmann’s scientific findings is reminiscent of the attitudes held by today’s climate change deniers, and the pursuit of profit at any cost is also something that contemporary audiences can relate to easily. However, the power that Ibsen’s play attributes to the press has significantly diminished in the age of the Internet and Wikileaks, and pendants will wonder why Stockmann doesn’t send an email to Julian Assange. I don’t think these minor contradictions detract from the power of the play at all. It’s the issues that matter, and the company is not afraid to invoke big ideas, and name-check important thinkers. The blackboard-like walls of the set are decorated with sundry chalk drawings, slogans and names — the names Rousseau, author of the Social Contract, Hegel and Kierkegaard are grouped together; a slogan ‘If you see Buddha, kill him’ is scrawled on another part of the wall amongst many other bits and pieces. There’s a lot of visual information to for the audience to scan, and this task is made difficult by having to keep an eye on the surtitles (the actors speak German for the most part).

 

The play unfolds as expected until the town hall scene where the Stockmann brothers face-off in a pubic debate, each attempting to convince the townspeople of the merits of their respective positions. It’s at this point that things really get interesting. The house lights are turned on, and several actors walk through the fourth wall and into the audience, some take seats, others are placed around the perimeter of the area around the front stalls. At first, this move appears somewhat lame, a heavy-handed Brechtian set piece. Stockmann then delivers his speech, one of the most important monologues in the play, and here’s where the director takes the greatest liberty with Ibsen’s play — he substitutes extracts from the anarchist manifesto for Ibsen’s words. This has the effect of making Stockmann almost incoherent, for see seems to embody a series of contradictory positions. One the one hand, we have seen him as the embodiment of reason and reasonableness within a corrupt milieu — he is the only character seemingly committed to the truth and the long-term well being of the community. The ‘I am what I am’ speech turns him into a rabid demagogue. This transformation happens so quickly that it’s difficult to follow exactly what the character is actually arguing for in his heightened state of agitation. Let’s not forget that this is a German production, and Germans are especially sensitive to the power of inflated and misleading political rhetoric. Stockmann morphs into a little Hiter, but there’s more. At this point the actors ask the audience a series of questions about what they think of the speech and the character of Stockmann. Most importantly, we were asked to raise our hands if we supported Stockmann — almost everybody did. We were then asked if we realized what Stockmann was actually saying about his opponents, for his rant included a line about silencing his opposition. We were played like a piano, and made to feel a little foolish for making such a hasty judgment about the speech. Did Ostermeier flagrantly manipulate the audience? Sure, he did, but he had good reason because the ensuing discussion was the most compelling part of the play. We quickly moved from Brecht to Boal, and found ourselves involved in a form of forum theatre.

This gambit has the potential to fail spectacularly if the audience is docile. The audience on this particular occasion responded with passion, anger, enthusiasm and humour (one gentleman asked how much longer the play had to run because it was past his lunchtime). Some people didn’t like the insinuation that the middle-class is complacent when it comes to politics (the German actors had the audacity to ask the Australian audience whether they intended to vote in the forthcoming council elections). One actor made the point that politics is difficult — it’s easy to criticize, but not so easy to become involved and deal with competing claims and counter-claims about what constitutes the collective good.

I’m under no illusion about the play’s capacity to inspire its audience to raise a people’s army and overthrow capitalism. No work of art is directly revolutionary. However, I admire Ostermeier’s intellectual ambition — his theatre, like it or not, is one of complexity and contradiction. He appeals to the head because he knows only too well the price we pay for dwelling in the narcotic glow of emotions. The final scene of the play, in another significant departure from Ibsen’s text, has Dr Stockmann and his Wife contemplating capitulation. The lights go out before we learn of Stockmann’s decision. Does he go on with his crusade for the truth, which will result in his and his family’s destruction, or does he bow to the will of the majority? Ostermeier leaves the question open, unanswered, unsettled.

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?

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?