Monday, 29 October 2007

Review: Death is certain

Eva Meyer-Keller, Death is certain, as part of Retroflex, Performance Space @ CarriageWorks, 13 October

"What I am doing is very small" declares Eva Meyer-Keller quietly as we gather in the intimate but un-theatrical surrounds of CarriageWorks' exhibition space, Bay 19, "so it's best if you stand." Duty done, she turns immediately to her work, approaching the first of two large tables in the centre of the space. This table is covered in a neatly laid out collection of tools, implements and odd miscellaneous items; a strange cross between a hobbyist's workshop, a kitchen, and a torture chamber. A coiled electrical cable with copper wiring exposed. A gas cylinder. Several boxes of matches. An impressive collection of knives, arranged in ascending size. Toothpicks. A bottle of brandy. Hairspray. Cigarette lighters, cigarettes, and an ashtray. A hair dryer. Plastic cups. Cling wrap. Dental floss. And in front of all this, a large number of strawberries. Waiting. Loaded with potentiality. Meyer-Keller dons a black apron, places her handbag under the table, slips on a pair of latex gloves, and goes to work.

Delicately removing a strawberry from the collection, she efficiently removes the leaves before tying dental floss around the helpless strawberry. She takes her construction to the second table, currently bare and covered in a white cloth. Also waiting. The strawberry is placed on the table, the dental floss secured to the table with sticky tape, and as she moves back to her work table, she flicks the strawberry off the table. Caught in its dental floss noose, its fall is abruptly arrested, its non-existent spine snapped. Death for this strawberry was certain, even if the manner of this death was almost an afterthought.

Meyer-Keller calmly continues her murderous work - there's a lot of strawberries to get through after all, and she can't keep us all night. The implied and actual violence delivered so calmly and politely is quite striking. Death is certain, and therefore its execution can simply be another job that must be done within the given time frame. A strawberry run through with a toothpick. Another run over by a toy truck. Another is crushed in a door jam with a sickening silence. Another burned at a miniature stake. Drawn and quartered. Skinned alive. Melted with a iron.

The deaths get more and more elaborate - asphyxiation by carbon monoxide is enacted using a plastic cup, cling wrap, a lit cigarette, and a straw. A death by drowning created by floating the hapless strawberry in a paper boat floating in a bucket of water, then creating a tempest with a hair dryer. Fate has nothing pleasant in store for these innocent pieces of fruit.

The flesh of these strawberries takes on a surprisingly human quality as we watch them seem to bleed, leaving red stains all over the hitherto stark white tablecloth. Meyer-Keller efficiently wraps another fruity victim in a napkin, lays it gently on the table, and presses firmly down until the napkin turns red. The absurdity of this deathly art turns viscerally horrifying in an instant. When she begins to slowly and skilfully skin a strawberry with a scalpel blade, the ethical question of what it means to watch this simulated suffering becomes uncomfortably present. If, as Steve Baker suggests, the presence of the suffering or wronged animal in contemporary art makes "the question of the human abrasively visible", then its also difficult to avoid the question of human suffering when faced with these fruity stand-ins. With the simplest of means and the most precise and clinical of performances, Meyer-Keller has created a deeply moving and frighteningly funny meditation on human violence. With an artful blend of pleasure and horror, she conjures a damning ongoing history of human cruelty, demanding that we who watch urgently address the question: can we ever become more than monsters?

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Retroflex - blink and you'll miss it!

Just a quick note to encourage Sydney readers to go and see Retroflex, a dance triple bill opening tonight at Performance Space @ Carriage Works, details here. It features Death is certain, an acclaimed piece from German dancer Eva Meyer-Keller, in Australia as part of Jerome Bel's The Show Must Go On in the Melbourne Festival next week (and I for one will be there with bells on, if you pardon the pun). From reports, Meyer-Keller subjects strawberries (in Europe it was cherries, but they're out of season here it seems) to the cruel and degrading treatment dished out in the name of the war on terror, torturing fruit to death following the precise descriptions of torturers and interrogators acting in the name of freedom in the dark and not-so-dark corners of the world. Also on the bill are Melbourne-based dancer Siobhan Murphy and new work by my favourite local 'submerging artist' Julie-Anne Long.
It opens tonight, and there's 3 shows only. Blink, miss, and be disappointed. I'll be there on Saturday, and will post an appropriately compromised report.

Photo taken from Performance Space website

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Review: Bone and Hilda

Briefly, I managed to catch the final performance of Hilda at the TAP Gallery on September 20th. It's a dark, deeply cruel, and fascinating text, featuring a fantastic bravura performance from Susie Lindeman unfortunately not matched by the disappointingly one-dimensional performance of Jake Blundell as her rival for the attentions of the ever-unseen Hilda. The production, directed by Jonathan Wald, was pretty ordinary, but the text by Marie Ndiaye is well worth further attention. That, and Lindeman's performance, were the reasons to see this work.

The following week I trotted over the Seymour Centre for Ride On Theatre's Bone, a play by John Donnelly. A return for the BITE Season (though I must confess that I missed the original season), Bone is a deeply compelling play about existential despair, a search for personal redemption, and a sense of purpose to carry on. Doesn't sound happy, does it?

Fortunately the writing is powerful, gut-wrenching at moments, and beautifully delicate at others. Each character bears some painful relation to the past, a recent trauma that underpins and overwrites their experience of the present. Each returns to descriptions of loss and leaving, producing image-worlds in which armies real and imagined run rampant, slaughtering and burning children who become animals (because they never could have children), imagined cancers devouring body cells like "ethnic cleansing", an imagined sickness whose force becomes shameful and redeeming at the same time based on the genuine sympathy it provokes, a stark contrast to the superficial empathy that this character uses to sell products that are meaningless even to him. Each of the characters is looking for connection, but they neither know how to find it or indeed what exactly it is that they are looking for. Its ordinary stuff, the trauma of everyday life, but no less powerful for that. As I overheard an audience member on the way out of the theatre: "That's where I've been."

The strength of the writing is matched by a fine ensemble of actors, most notably a moving performance from Vanessa Downing, but also fine work from Peter Barry and Ryan Haywood. Its a tough call to direct such a work as this , consisting as it does of three intercut monologues that while being thematically related and skilfully orchestrated, never produce any relationship between the characters. The theme is isolation after all, but it this could quite easily produce a unengaging disconnect between actors onstage. Director Tanya Goldberg deftly avoids this trap, eliciting strong and nuanced performances from her actors. While I have some reservations about the occasional (mis)use of mimed actions, and remain perplexed by the design feature of sculpted chicken wire dominating the space but not integrated into the staging, I thoroughly recommend this work. It closes Saturday 13 October, so there's a few more chances yet.

The Sydney swirl! Bad blogger!

Well, what a rich month or two of postings from your compromised host! September came and September went, and only the one token post. Mea culpa. Did I mention in the sidebar that keeping this up-to-date was a non-core promise? I am indeed a bad blogger, and today's post won't do nearly enough to make amends. But one must start somewhere, and today, it will be here.

Despite my silence in the blog-o-sphere (I prefer this spelling of the neologism, so don't get upset dear blog purists. Just dismiss me as eccentric), its been an active month in the performative Sydney swirl. There's far too much theatre and performance to see, even if I wasn't working fifty hours a week on the flys at the opera (currently the joys of Tannhauser and The Tales of Hoffman). Now I'm realising why I avoided doing opera seasons for all these years - there's no time to see shows! The scary part is that I remember working on this production of Tannhauser for its premiere season in 1997. Now I really know that I've worked at the Opera House too long... Still, I've managed to get out a bit and participate in the swirl, and the following post will attest. More soon - I think that the brain fog is starting to clear and I might have something to say again.