Monday, 18 February 2008

Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 2: The Ghost in the Suitcase


The second show on the bill at Chalkhorse was the premiere of Suitcase Royale's The Ghost of Rickett's Hill. For one reason or another I've always managed to miss the Suitcase Royale when they've come to Sydney, but there has always been a good buzz about their work out there on the local contemporary arts grapevine. Apparently Ghost... represents a change of direction for the company, and tonight's performance was the very first outing of the work. It was a warm and friendly crowd for this auspicious occasion, and the bulk of the audience seemed clearly familiar with the Suitcase oeuvre and highly appreciative of the disintegrating spectacle that followed.

Three aviators crash in the desert whilst ferrying a mysterious cargo, and two of the party set out across the desert in the direction of a mysterious blinking light, in hope of rescue. The captain, already half-mad with some unfathomable obsession, stays behind, guarding the cargo. It's a classic pulp mock-heroic fiction scenario, performed with an appropriate degree of self-conscious bombast, finely calibrated for comic effect. The blinking light turns out to be none other than Lighthouse Man, once surrounded by lapping ocean but now condemned to a dry and dusty existence due to the curse of the supposedly malevolent Wolf Man. The curse can be broken by the possession of a magical amulet, which for reasons of narrative convenience happens to be the mysterious cargo of the stranded aviators. The rest off the happenings within the show constitute a parade of encounters with increasingly absurd characters, none of whom actually advance anything which might be thought of as a 'plot'. Instead, what Suitcase Royale present is themselves in the process of losing the plot.

Clinging to their patently ridiculous personas within their nonsensical pseudo-narrative for far too long, each performer is confronted by escalating disappointments and betrayals from their fellows. Overall, the company stage themselves as a drunken and unreliable lot. From faulty costumes (Lighthouse Man's spectacularly over-the-top headpiece complete with blinking light, which he is largely unable to hold upright), to collapsing scenery (cardboard sculptures of mountains delicately balanced and easily upset), to missed textual and sound cues, forgotten lines and inept costume changes, missing props and the allegedly unexpected cutting up of a sentimentally important piece of clothing to construct someone else's costume that results in a near-altercation onstage. This is accident and incompetence re-presented as entertainment, and it is certainly a load of anarchic fun.

These are most successful when there's a clear attempt to hold things together, to bodge the already bodgy show just enough so it can get to the end and everyone can get back to the bar. The third performer is always trying to move past the current crisis or obstacle, and force the show to go on, even if this requires upstaging his recalcitrant fellow artists. Sometimes however, these staged crises don't seem overly convincing, with the playacted breakdowns and mock-drunken chaos seeming contrived and while highly amusing, borders upon indulgent at times. At the end of this unraveling spectacle one performer announces: "Ladies and Gentlemen, that was Suitcase Royale", implying that the group has destroyed its ability to continue, as if this performative disaster has killed the will-to-group-ness of our hapless trio.

Of course, this is clearly untrue. They're all having far too much fun to stop, and anyway, the audience keeps egging them on. With so much love in the room, why would they stop? I couldn't help but wonder how much more confronting and thrilling the work might have been if we in the audience had been allowed to believe, even for a moment, that this crisis of competence and company was actual. I remain confident that the assured playing style and clear talent of the performers will be able to deepen the dramaturgy of the performance as they continue to take Ghost... on the road, but I do question whether the company can really enter the dark spaces that they so playfully and casually evoke. The results of such an exploration might be extraordinary indeed. Check it out.

Stay tuned for Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 3: No Pig is an Island, coming to a blog near you soon!

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 1: Gifted and Talented

Logging on to my Facebook account, I found it filling up with invitations to events that claimed to a part of something called The Imperial Panda Festival. Intrigued, I head along to the launch at Black and Blue Gallery, and find myself part of the humid swirl of the festival - two weeks of art, alcohol, and conversation in an intoxicating and highly satisfying blend. Due to my own commitments to the tour of version 1.0's The Bougainville Photoplay Project to Canberra, I was unable to attend every event, but nonetheless I felt very much as if I had been witness to something significant.

Part of the joy of the idiosyncratically named Imperial Panda Festival (January 31- February 9) has been discovering, and in some cases re-discovering, what might be not entirely satisfactorily be termed the 'emerging artist scene' of Sydney. Driven ever-further underground for various financial and compliance issues (no one with an OHS certificate should open their eyes in these venues until they've had at least three drinks), much of these cultures of practice have failed to appear on my radar as they've shifted away from more established contemporary arts hubs such as Performance Space, and contemporary arts developmental spaces such as PACT and Shopfront. My loss, not theirs. Imperial Panda, ramshackle and chaotic as it regularly was, is nonetheless an initiative of welcome ambition.

Crammed into artist-run spaces that seem to adhere to planning codes less than the Lanfranchis space that was the former epicentre of this scene (if that can be imagined!), the Imperial Panda festival events were sweaty affairs. However, fueled by buzzing enthusiasm, cheap booze, and loads of goodwill, these were great spaces to be in. If nothing else, it was great to see crowds of people (mostly) younger than myself excited about art! Contrary to Nick's experience, I didn't see a lot of that in my Sydney Festival travels (but then I must confess that my work schedule precluded visits to the Beck's Bar or the Spiegel Tent. In fact, I didn't get to Hyde Park all January...). It made me excited to be a maker of art again. (A tangent on this point, remind me to never put my occupation as 'theatre maker' on entry documents to the UK ever again. It's a real hassle to explain yourself and your art practice at Heathrow when jetlagged and faced with an odd mix of serious disdain and suspicion. My most irritating border crossing in many years. But I digress...) Anyway, it made me feel like continuing to be an artist, a calling that has seemed more and more impossible to maintain. Academia, policy, and administration have all become tempting full time careers, much to my existential horror. But Imperial Panda, and the enthusiastic and disparate community of artists it gathered, proved a very welcome and timely reinvigoration. It wasn't all great art, but it was indeed a fantastic place to be. Viva la shambolic revolution!

Seated upon milkcrates topped by cardboard, almost shouting to be heard over the chatter, I eagerly awaited the reprise season of Post's Gifted and Talented, for me one of the performance highlights of 2007 (just to give you sense of what else would be in my very provisional top ten, this includes Jerome Bel's The Show must go on, UTP's The Folding Wife, Stuck Pigs Squealing's The Eisteddfod, the Maly Theatre's Uncle Vanya, Dood Paard's Mediea, and maybe STC's Season at Sarsaparilla and Deborah Pollard's Blue Print). I'd just given a big talking up of the show to Nick as we squeezed with our beers into the confines of the downstairs gallery at Chalkhorse, so of course I was nervous about expectations. (One of my favourite ever shows, Hotel Pro Forma's Operation: Orfeo was transformative at the Sydney Opera House in 1997, then frustratingly imprecise and even sloppy at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999, so I'm aware than expectations can indeed be crippling).

The verdict? Well, the cramped confines of the gallery did the work no favours, severely limiting the movement that erupts out of the brutal conversations that form the core of the piece. Despite this, the work retains, for me at least, its dark, hilarious, and appalling glory, with the ability to shock, amuse, and surprise. I look forward to seeing in back in a more appropriate theatre space in Adelaide next week (I'll be attending APAM to spruik version 1.0's Deeply offensive..., and will hopefully have time for a few nibbles of the Adelaide Fringe in between networking functions.) Look out for Post's Gifted and Talented in the Fringe program - its truly a gem, and is thoroughly recommended.

Stay tuned for Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 2: The Ghost in the Suitcase!

Friday, 1 February 2008

version 1.0's The Bougainville Photoplay in Canberra next week

The Bougainville Photoplay Project
A slide show with fireside chat

Devised and performed by Paul Dwyer
Directed by David Williams
Video artist Sean Bacon
Technical production Russell Emerson

1. An eminent Australian orthopedic surgeon makes a series of trips to Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) during the 1960s, just as the era of Australia ’s colonial mandate is drawing to a close. The doctor is presented with dozens of crippled children and lepers; his operations allow many of these people to walk for the first time.

2. The giant Panguna copper mine is established against the wishes of Bougainville’s traditional landowners. Environmental destruction is caused by the mine, and the struggle for Bougainville to become independent of PNG leads to a brutal civil war during which roughly one in ten of the island’s inhabitants die.

3. An Australian academic begins fieldwork study of reconciliation ceremonies on Bougainville in the current period of post-war reconstruction. He carries with him a book of photographs.

Three narrative threads are delicately interwoven in an intimate, moving, and constantly surprising monologue performance from acclaimed performance group version 1.0. Combining field notes, oral history, slides, Super-8 film, video installation and the display of various artefacts, The Bougainville Photoplay Project grapples with the ethical, epistemological and practical dilemmas of making art and conducting research in post-colonial, post-conflict settings, particularly when the artist/researcher is a citizen of the former colonial power. This is politics and performance at its most personal.

The Courtyard Studio,
Canberra Theatre Centre
London Circuit, Civic

3 performances only:

Saturday, 9 February, 9:00 PM
Sunday, 10 February, 9:00 PM
Monday, 11 February, 7:00 PM

Tickets: $20/ $15

Bookings: 02 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatre.org.au