Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Review: Gilgamesh by Uncle Semolina (& friends)

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, 22nd November 2007

The work begins, appropriately enough, with an introduction: "A long time ago, when the world was boring..." As if to counteract this perceived boredom, Uncle Semolina (& friends) apply mountains of energy, enthusiasm, and oodles of brightly coloured toys.

Gilgamesh, or 'G' (Richard Pyros) is, we are told by narrator Katherine Tonkin, "one part man, and one part god", a despot and a "fucking arsehole". His strength and power mean that he can do whatever he wants, and so he does, killing, raping, fighting, building, ruling, and generally being bad news for those who he claims kingship over. Unlike more recent mythological figures such as Spiderman, with G's great power come no responsibility whatsoever. The caped action figure that is designated 'G' throws cars, rapes dolls, and prances about without a care in the world.
The performance takes place in a skeletal shipping container, filled with dirt and a motley collection of childrens' toys, kind of like a sand pit for adults, but filthy, like G himself. By the end of the show, the performers are covered in dirt, the residue of a very messy set of stories. Sitting isolated in the centre of The Studio's stage space, the container feels curiously distant, and despite the warmth and energy of the performers, the black moat between audience and artists is never overcome. I can well imagine that in a more intimate environment this would have been a very different experience, but in this context it was very difficult to become absorbed by the onstage antics. My experience of this work was that of watching others get carried away in playing a game that I could never quite be a part of.

G's oppressed people finally have their longstanding pleas for deliverance answered by one of a seemingly neverending pantheon of gods who appear and disappear throughout the tale. A wild man is made of mud and raised by animals, and after some distractions, does battle with G. Enkidu or 'E' (Mark Tregonning) fights G in one of the more entertaining sequences of the show, all mock and roll wrestling complete with fake falls, staged punches, and body slam leaps from imagined ropes. G and E seem unable to defeat each other, so instead they become best mates. Their combined mayhem knows no bounds, and they gleefully destroy forests, kill giants, disrespect gods and goddesses, and ultimately slay the bull of heaven. For this ultimate act of trespass, E is struck down by the gods, leaving G distraught, but still destructive. As neither of the protagonists were particularly nice guys, it's difficult to sympathise overly with his loss.

The most disappointing thing about this highly energetic production is that none of this messiness ends up adding up to very much, so when the novelty of parade of toys, game playing, and impromptu hip-hop routines wears thin, as it does about half way through what feels like a very long eighty minutes or so, there's nothing much else to replace this. There's the occasional promise of something more, such as G's obsessive philosophical turn during his quest for immortality when shocked into a state nearing the contemplative by the death of his one-time rival and now best buddy E, and various miscellaneous characters who appear, deliver potentially important pronouncements such as "To name is to know. To know is to own", and then vanish. At these moments, it appears as if there might be a more sustained reflection upon the nature of writing itself, a notion that the Gilgamesh stories might lend themselves to, given their staus as one of the earliest existent pieces of written language. But anything beyond promise remains elusive in this attempt at re-telling these messy surviving fragments of story. It looks great and is fun for a long time, but ultimately in my view there's little to reccomend this work beyond pleasures of play.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Video Notes 1: Shirtology by Jerome Bel

Taking a lead from Christine Evans, I'm going to post in installments my notes on a series of performance documentations I watched in the Live Art Development Agency's study room whilst in London recently. Not quite reviews, these notes are largely my own labour of thinking through these works, an interest triggered by the recent performance The Show Must Go On for MIAF.

Recorded July 1999, Montpellier Danse Festival. Dancer Frederic Seguette. Direction and choreography Jerome Bel.

Part 1: Shirtologie: the subject as interpellated by clothing, external forces operating upon the human. The action is simple: a single male dancer stands onstage, head bowed. He wears a large number of T shirts, layered found objects whose bulk sits unevenly upon his body. One by one, he removes the shirts, pausing each time to enact in response to the message or instruction contained upon the shirt. Steadily, the dancer completes his task, to be acted upon by the detritus of fashion.

The dancer is constantly framed as the the logo,the number. 5, Michigan final 4. Back or front, the performer orientation is dictated by the decoration of the shirt.Counting down 3, 2 facing upstage. A turn in the last shirt 'One T shirt for the life'. The dancer still head down, barechested. Bare flesh is seemingly insufficent to produce action, the human apparently enough in itself to take on the status of a signifier, at least not in this context. As if recognising this fact he puts a shirt back on, a diagram of a rib cage, a simulacra taking the place of the real. The camera fades to black.

Part 2: Camera resumes with the dancer weighed down by a new collection of shirts. NEXT, NEW STYLE, GIRL, BEST GIRL, ELLE - the shirts seem to mock the body of the male dancer. Continuing, he must now read all of the words scattered across the shirt's surface - SUMMER, SUN, WATER, MUSIC, FUN. His dry delivery suggests that this activity is very far from fun, but he is compelled to continue. The next shirt contains a musical score, and the dancer must sing along, a ridiculous demonstration of reading ability. Next he must imitate the poses on the shirts - a girl in a bikini, arms raised on one leg. He awkwardly executes the pose. The next shirt has two figures, and he is moved to quickly remove that shirt. The next shirt, with four figures, is even more impossible.

The next reads: DANCE OR DIE. And so he does, with great energy in a confined space, singing the score from the previous shirt. Dance complete, he moves to the next shirt: REPLAY. He does. The next shirt: SHUT UP AND DANCE. He dances again, but without the song. STAY COOL. He stands and waits. The section ends, and the lights fade to black.

Part 3: With glorious redundency, the first shirt this time informs us that this is THE TOP. He removes this to reveal a blank shirt, which produces no action. Blank again. still no action. A third blank shirt, expressive potential flattened out by monochrome. More blankness, but a darker shade this time. Still no action. More monchrome. It's becoming a study in faded blue/grey, now getting steadily lighter, now getting darker again. On about the tenth shirt, it greys out. Finally: THE UNITED COLOURS OF BENNETTON. All united in blankness. The camera fades to black and the credits begin.

Borrowing time

Like Matthew over at Esoteric Rabbit, October was a rich month of performance spectating for me, but poor in time to respond to it. I've managed to go some way to addressing this during my brief sojourn in Bristol last month, posting some thoughts about my MIAF trip, but there are a great many works that I haven't had the mental space to address yet, largely a strong set of new works from Sydney artists. These include The Fondue Set's Evening Magic 2, Deborah Pollard's exquisite and evocative Blue Print, de Quincey Co's The Stirring, and some touring work I've seen since returning home, including Uncle Semolina and Friend's Gilgamesh and CICT's Sizwe Banzi is Dead. The brand new issue of RealTime is out, and the responses from Pauline Manley (Evening Magic 2), Bryoni Trezise (Blue Print) and Jodie McNeilly (The Stirring) are a strong reminder that I need to try harder to keep up.

Perhaps as an incentive to achieve this, I've been commissioned by RealTime to write about two interesting and very different shows, Powerhouse Youth Theatre's City Quest, and PACT Theatre's Lotophagi, each of which close Sunday 9th December. My thoughts on both works will be posted in early February.

And to keep up the New Year's resolution to do more and be better, I've got tickets to a range of Sydney Festival performances including Urban Theatre Project's The Last Highway, and The National Theatre of Scotland's Aalst and Blackwatch. Expect responses to those, and hopefully some of the rich dance program as well, by the end of January. While I do confess being not carried away with the Sydney Festival 2008 at its launch, I can admit that my enthusiasm is building.

As previously promised, over the next few ballet performances (we have a lot of stand by time in Nutcracker), I'll start posting my responses to video documentation of three Jerome Bel works viewed while in London last month. Perhaps, if inspiration hits, I'll write about the conference I was attending at Royal Holloway, and maybe even the National Theatre's Warhorse as well. For the visual art-minded amongst you, I thoroughly recommend a trip up to the Australian Centre for Photography to see the stunning exhibition Girl Parade, curated by Bec Dean. Too much in that exhibition to do justice to here, but suffice to say that you'll kick yourself for missing it. UPDATE: read the Sydney Morning Herald review of Girl Parade here.

In other news, after six months of waiting for the last examiner's report, the notes are in and the PhD is passed. Still a month or so of admin, acid-free paper printing, binding etc before doctor-hood officially begins, but I'm pleased to have finally reached the end of that five year tunnel.

Merry Christmas to all.