The performances, talks and conversations I’ve attended or participated in over the last two weeks of the Festival have raised lots of questions for me about the relationship between art and life.
The eponymous title of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s play NASSIM suggests that it may (or may not) be about the playwright himself; and the Festival program informed us that a different guest performer would be in the play each night, without having read the script before they go onstage.
Needless to say, the Festival Navigator was invited to be one of the guest performers and couldn’t resist. I duly arrived at the Studio Underground half an hour before the show. In fact I came straight from a public showing nearby at King Street Arts Centre of the immersive, interactive and semi-improvised work I’d been doing with a group of about 50 local artists (dancers and actor/performers) in a workshop led by Maxine Doyle, Sarah Dowling and Conor Doyle from UK-based immersive site-specific performance company Punchdrunk (probably best-known for their New York production Sleep No More). So I was a little rushed, but well-primed.
A friend of mine has described one of the tasks of the actor as ‘forgetting the future’. NASSIM makes this easy, because the actor doesn’t know what’s coming, or even what their next line will be until just before they say it. The challenge – as in life – is to accept and embrace this without fear.
It’s difficult to describe NASSIM in detail without spoiling the experience for future audiences and performers. Broadly speaking, it’s about language, friendship and family, and is funny, informative and deeply moving. The audience laughed a lot, we learned some Farsi and at one point I struggled with tears. There are pivotal acts of reciprocity and exchange between playwright, performer and audience, which for me were the most effective (and affecting) moments of the night.
My evolving relationship with Soleimanpour in the course of the show reminded me of that between playwright/performer Evgeny Grishkovets and onstage interpreter Kyle Wilson in Farewell To Paper, as well as Yeung Fai and his co-puppeteer (and occasional translator) Yoann Pencolé in Hand Stories (in fact I felt at times as if I was Soleimanpour’s puppet). All three shows literally involve translation, but more importantly, a sense of artistic collaboration, emotional rapport and even creative complicity, which arguably lies at the heart of any successful performance. All three shows are also similarly personal, non-fictional and inclusive of the audience. There’s plenty of artifice, but no pretence.
I can’t really describe what it’s like to watch NASSIM, but only what it was like to perform it. This is true to some extent for every production I’ve been in, but it’s uniquely true in the case of NASSIM, because of its immersive, task-based nature. For the performer it’s like playing a game, or perhaps being played with; but unlike other participatory work I’ve experienced, the role of the audience is crucial, which is perhaps what makes it a play as well as a game. The artfulness of the game – and the play – lies in its unexpected twists and turns in content and form. As such – at least from the inside – it resembles a dream, and my memory of the ‘plot’ is correspondingly episodic, fragmentary and tangled, like the journey of a refugee.
The playful, ironic treatment of content and form reminds me of Soleimanpour’s fellow countryman the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami – in particular the latter’s quasi-documentaries Through the Olive Trees and The Wind Will Carry Us. Like those films, the play engages in a game with the audience about what is inside and outside the literal and narrative frame. In doing so, both display a profoundly sophisticated understanding of the medium of theatre and cinema respectively and convey a deeply humanist message about the relationship between artist, subject matter and audience.
Two nights later I saw (but didn’t participate in) French-Canadian master-theatremaker Robert Lepage’s The Far Side of the Moon, which was first produced in 2000 and originally performed by Lepage himself (who also wrote, directed and designed it) but subsequently inhabited and toured by fellow Quebeçois actor Yves Jacques.
The Far Side of the Moon is a more conventional work (dramaturgically if not scenographically) than NASSIM, Farewell to Paper or Hand Stories, but in its own way no less personal. Indeed it arguably belongs to the North American tradition of ‘memory-plays’ like Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie and Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (and beyond these to a central strand of modern literature and art from Romanticism onwards). In interviews Lepage refers to this strand in his work as ‘auto-fiction’, and acknowledges in a program note that writing the play compelled him to draw on his own childhood and adolescence.
As a story about two brothers (here played by the same actor, with the aid of a simple costume change and stuck-on goatee) it also has a central onstage (or onstage-offstage) relationship between two men at the core of the action. Here however the theme of sibling rivalry and possible reconciliation (not to mention inheritance) has resonances that stretch back at least to the Old Testament; though unlike its Biblical forebears the apex of the Oedipal triangle in The Far Side of the Moon is a mother (rather than an unmentioned father) – much like NASSIM in fact.
As a writer, director and stage designer however Lepage is more concerned with visual and narrative images and symbols than with actual people, objects or events. This is even true of the central staging device: a long rotating segmented one-sided mirror that anticipates Lepage’s staging of Wagner’s Ring for the Metropolitan Opera in 2010. This device includes sliding panels, doorways and apertures that frame scenes and facilitate scene changes as well as unexpected exits and entrances (including puppets as well as objects and people) – most memorably via a round window that opens and closes, doubles as a projection surface and variously represents a washing machine door, a goldfish bowl, an aeroplane window and the moon itself.
This preoccupation with image and symbol also applies to the play, which sets the story of the two brothers against the background of the Russian-American space race. Thus the moon becomes the image and symbol of aspiration, desire and melancholia – and perhaps the related triad of femininity, maternity and creativity – as well as the motifs of reflection and doubling, or the imaginary itself. This is most memorably embodied in two scenes where Jacques (here playing Philippe, the more dreamy, introverted brother, a cultural anthropologist obsessed with outer space) is literally reflected and doubled by the mirror. In one scene, a brilliant comic monologue with an invisible interlocutor (which of necessity becomes the device that frames most of the play’s dialogue via phone calls, recorded messages and lectures), the tilted mirror becomes the surface of a bar at which Philippe sits and drunkenly complains about his brother (a more superficially successful TV weather-presenter) to an invisible bartender, while beneath him the mirror image of his upper body duplicates his gesticulating arms and hands like one of the mythic creatures from Plato’s Symposium. And in the final wordless sequence of the play (itself a kind of mirror-image of the former scene), Philippe falls asleep in an airport terminal on a row of chairs with the tilted mirror above and behind him, and then slowly rolls onto the floor, downstage and finally offstage while slowly waving his arms and legs, his mirror-image becoming that of a man floating off the chairs and into outer space.
As befits its subject-matter, The Far Side of the Moon is a melancholy and even lonely work. The two brothers are complimentary halves of a single whole, and both in different ways are missing something vital and lead empty lives. The dazzlingly inventive scenography reinforces this sense of alienation, with the solo actor surrounded by stage technology, video projections, puppet Russian space men and former cosmonauts in military uniforms (manipulated by an unseen puppeteer), minimal props (notably an ironing board that doubles as various gym workout machines), and Laurie Anderson’s typically cool, emotionally withdrawn score (the use of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata in the final sequence in contrast made for a characteristically Lepagian moment of catharsis). At times I wondered if Jacques himself was a little disconnected from his roles, having performed them so many times in so many places over so many years, but perhaps it was an intentional aspect of his characterisation. Overall, my own focus and engagement came and went with this show, which unfolded for me like a reverie. Like the moon, Lepage’s work conceals as much as it reveals, which is an essential aspect of its beauty.
The following night I attended the closing session of Writer’s Week: Words and Image, a presentation by Australian-Chinese photographer and performer William Yang.
Yang began doing slide-shows at Belvoir Downstairs in 1989; I first saw him performing Sadness in Melbourne in 1992. A selection of photos and anecdotes documenting the theatre and gay scenes in Sydney in the 70s and 80s, the deaths of lovers and friends during the AIDS epidemic and his research into the racially motivated murder of his uncle in Queensland in 1922, Sadness was a witty and moving meditation on identity and loss, all the more effective because of its format and Yang’s warm but dry persona, which eschewed sentimentality.
Words and Image weaves some of the same material into a bigger story which incorporates what Yang calls his process of ‘coming out’ in relation to his Chinese heritage and his increasing interest in nature and Taoist spirituality. In particular there are some stunningly beautiful semi-abstract images of the Australian landscape, and a fascinating new practice of adding handwritten anecdotes (some of which were repeated verbatim as part of his monologue performance) to the surface of the prints. There’s an imagistic clarity and discretion in Yang’s writing that matches his performance style, and indeed the photos themselves, and reminded me of traditional Chinese and Taoist art and poetry.
I saw Words and Image with an ex-partner, and as we sat down we realised that we’d seen Sadness together 25 years ago. Yang is now grey-haired and bespectacled, and uses PowerPoint instead of a slide projector (needless to say there were a few technical hitches to start with, which didn’t occur when he used slides, and the peculiar mix of nostalgia, magic and domesticity associated with the slide-show format was gone). All of this enhanced my sense of the passage of time, loss, change and acceptance.
On Monday night I attended ‘Who Are the Arts For?’, the Festival Connect Keynote Speech by UK theatre director, arts administrator and activist Jude Kelly, which brought the relationship between art and life firmly into the political spotlight. The thrust of her speech was that art began as a communal and participatory activity that has gradually become more and more specialised and exclusive as an effect of social division, and that it was time to reverse or at least counteract this process if we believed that art, no less than health or education, was truly ‘for everyone’. It was hard to argue with this, and I found myself reflecting on the notion of inclusiveness for artists and audiences, new forms of participation in Festival works like Museum of Water, Attractor, NASSIM and The Second Woman (about which more below), free public art works like Siren Song and the Festival Connect and Education programs.
At the end of the session, a final contribution came from a Persian singer in the audience, who revealed that she was a new arrival to this country and thanked the Festival for giving her the opportunity to be one of the voices in the Perth version of Siren Song. Afterwards I chatted with her and learned that the work’s sound artist Byron J. Scullin had incorporated not only her voice but the distinctive modes and melodies of traditional Persian singing into the soundtrack of the work. She also said that it was remixed and recomposed each time it was played, which explained why it had sounded different each time I’d heard it, with different cultural modalities (sometimes Noongar, sometimes Middle Eastern) seeming to come to the fore.
Thinking about her experience, I found myself reflecting on ‘what’ (as well as ‘who’) the arts might be ‘for’, and the various social, personal and even spiritual functions of art for different societies, communities and individuals at various times and places. What was the function of art – or the various functions of different artforms and artworks – for me, here, now, at this time of life, as an audience member and an artist? No doubt it was changing, as I changed, and as the world changed around me.
I thought about how NASSIM had brought me to tears at one point, when a line I had to read aloud resonated with my own life. I thought about my mother and her work in community arts. If there was one thing this Festival was giving me, it was a renewed sense that art matters.
Later that week I saw two more works that merged cultural traditions, artforms and even human bodies to create something new.
Vessel is a collaboration between French-Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet and Japanese sculptor, architect and set designer Kohei Nawa. Seven semi-naked dancers (wearing only skin-coloured underwear) form clumps of two or three bodies, moving slowly and occasionally spasmodically, separating and then reforming, but mostly preserving a strong sense of frontality and symmetry. Their individual gender or cultural identity is indiscernible, not only because of their androgynous underwear, body types and movements but because their heads remain concealed by each other’s bodies or body parts, or turned away from the audience in variously inverted postures. Despite this, one can see faces in backs, much as one sees human faces or animal shapes in rocks, clouds, waves or flames; while the twisted bodies form composite creatures with multiple limbs and mysterious organs, like figures in Hindu mythology, paintings by Heironymus Bosch or John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The set consists of a lake of dark water which extends to the wings and the back of the stage; in the middle of the lake is a white island that resembles a vulva-shaped shell or dish; and in the centre of the island is a raised crater from which a white, viscous substance like milk or sperm wells up, bubbles and overflows. The stage is dimly lit by Yukiko Yoshimoto, mostly from above and with light sources concealed, except for side-lighting near the end of the work (which Kohei later told me was a concession to Jalet, who wanted to light the dancers more ‘sculpturally’). The effect of the overhead lighting is to enhance the faceless anonymity of the dancers, as well as to intensify their reflections in the water, extending and duplicating their bodies, which become multi-limbed (like the effect of the mirror-bar on the actor’s body in The Far Side of the Moon), while the coronal glow from the lights concealed in the lighting tower heightens the cavernous sense of space.
The score by Marihiko Hara in collaboration with Japanese music legend Ryuichi Sakamoto provides a continuous bedrock of sound while taking the audience and dancers on an emotional journey from darkness to levity and back again. This journey unfolds in a series of tableaux, punctuated by blackouts and changes in sound, tempo and mood. The first tableau reveals the dancer-creatures in three clumps, as motionless as sculptures themselves in the water, reflected in its still surface; then they begin to move, disturbing and splashing it with their limbs, and one of them separates and emerges from a clump as if born. The second tableau sees all seven fully separated, standing upright but bent forwards with their heads tucked under their arms, and making more lively synchronised movements, which reminded me of children. The third tableau sees them form clumps again, limbs pressed together, opening and closing slowly like enlarged mouths or genitalia. In the final tableau one of them separates again and crawls up onto the island. Followed by the others (still clumped) the solo figure smears its back, head and face with the white substance before immersing itself and slowly submerging into the crater.
Vessel is inspired by Japanese myths about the underworld, and the cycle of birth, reproduction, death, rebirth and the transmigration of souls, but in effect it creates a new mythology, new species and a new cosmos, as well as a new composite artform.
Alongside Il n’est pas encore minuit … (likewise wordless but full of content, although in this case radically pre-human and even anti-humanist) Vessel has been the standout performance work of the Festival for me – one of those pieces that redefine what you thought was humanly (or inhumanly) possible onstage.
The following night I saw another cross-artform performance work with overtly metaphysical and even mystical overtones. White Spirit is a collaboration between the Syrian Sufi ensemble of six singer-instrumentalists Al Nabolsy (led by vocalist Noureddine Khourchid), three Syrian members of the Mawlawi order of Sufi mystics founded by the poet Rumi and also known as the Whirling Dervishes, and the secular Tunisian street artist Shoof, whose practice consists of painting large-scale characters based on Arabic calligraphy but deconstructed so that the emphasis is on their shape rather than any coded meaning.
Essentially the work consists of a series of Arabic hymns, accompanied by percussion instruments and the (exquisitely played) lute-like oud, in the course of which the dervishes rise from their chairs, enter the stage and begin to whirl, framed by a set that more or less resembles a traditional courtyard or street corner. After the first two pieces, Shoof enters and begins painting an improvised pattern of white characters on a black upstage wall. During the final piece, black light illuminates the stage, to reveal a circular pattern of white fluorescent writing on the floor of the set, while the whirling garments of the dervishes are also revealed to be fluorescent; the forms of the singer-musicians and the bodies of the dervishes seeming to dematerialise, so that they indeed become ‘white spirits’.
White Spirit is a beautiful and hypnotic musical and visual hybrid performance work. It reminded me of the Taiwanese U-Theatre company’s Beyond Time which I’d seen three weeks previously. Both works involve a juxtaposition of forms and practices: dance, martial arts and drumming in one case; music, movement and visual art in the other.
Somehow the juxtaposition didn’t quite coalesce for me or become something new, as was the case with Vessel. In the case of both White Spirit and Beyond Time, I felt like an onlooker, impressed but fundamentally untouched by what I saw. Perhaps this is because the traditions being juxtaposed aren’t performance-based practices at all, at least in the sense of being traditionally performed for an audience in a theatre. Chinese martial arts or meditational drumming, like Sufi musical or movement-based forms of worship, exist primarily for the benefit of the practitioner, who isn’t focused on how they look, or even sound, but how they feel. This incongruity was even more apparent because both works were performed in the Edwardian glory of His Majesty’s. I wondered if I would feel more connected to the works if they were performed outdoors.
This polarisation between artistic and spiritual practice emerged more sharply the following day when I facilitated an Artist Conversation entitled ‘The Sacred and the Profane’ with representatives from both White Spirit and Vessel. Most of those present preferred the languages of art or science to those of religion or politics to describe their work. Kohei Nawa spoke about his interest in collaboration across the disciplines of sculpture, architecture and performance, and about the laws of physics and gravity. He provided some background about Japanese mythology, but was coy when it came to the topic of his own spirituality. Damien Jalet talked about encountering other cultural practices on his travels as a dancer, and later in his researches as a choreographer, but was uneasy about the term ‘spirituality’, which he said had uncomfortable associations for him as a European and former Catholic.
On the other side of the panel, the artist Shoof was emphatic in his rejection of religion and what he called ‘stories’, preferring the sociological term ‘the sacred’ and the scientific (and especially biological) explanation of ‘reality’. He conceded that one of the functions of his own artistic practice was to ‘heal’ himself psychologically, but resisted the term ‘ritual’ in relation to his practice. When I suggested that art might have a healing function in relation to communities that had experienced trauma, he insisted that his work had no broader political relevance. I sensed that perhaps this was a topic too sensitive too explore further.
Beside me in the middle of the panel sat one of the Dervishes, a Syrian Malawi named Hatem Al Jamad. He neither spoke nor understood English, and relied entirely on an Arabic interpreter, but was unfailing courteous and generous throughout the discussion. He smiled benignly, explained that he was not a dancer and that the three fundamental stages of his practice were ‘desire’, ‘discipline’ and ‘ecstasy’. He blessed his ‘brother’ Shoof, and told me that he was ‘honoured’ to be here. I felt humbled in his presence.
He seemed very different from the other three artists. Where did I sit? Culturally, artistically, intellectually and perhaps temperamentally I felt closest to Jalet, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure.
After the Artist Conversation, it was time for the Festival Navigator to make his third guest appearance in a participatory performance work (after Attractor and NASSIM).
The Second Woman attained cult status on its previous outings in Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. For 24 hours, Nat Randall performs the same three-page scene from the John Cassavetes 1977 film Opening Night with a succession of guest male actors (and non-actors). The scene is set in a cramped motel room inside a pink-and-blue neon-lit box with translucent scrims on three sides (the words ‘The Second Woman’ are also lit up in pink neon on the back wall).
Randall wears a blonde wig, heavy makeup, a red dress and white high-heeled shoes. The guest actors wear whatever they choose, and are asked to learn their lines before the show and follow the directions in the script to the best of their ability; but are free to choose a couple of the lines, as well as how to perform the scene.
A two-person all-female camera crew move around the outside of the box covering the action, which is edited live and projected onto a large screen beside it. The audience sits facing the box and the screen, and are free to stay as long as they like or come and go as often as they please for the duration of the work.
Film buffs (and/or Randall buffs) will know that Opening Night is about an actor (played by Gina Rowlands, who was also married to Cassavetes) having a mid-life and mid-career crisis while rehearsing a play called The Second Woman. The scene Randall has chosen is actually a scene from the play-within-the-film. In the film, the scene is performed (with considerable extemporisation) by Rowlands and Cassavetes himself, who as well as directing also played her ex-husband – an actor who is also playing her ex-husband in the play-within-the-film.
The original film is thus already a multi-layered meditation on the relationship between art and life, acting and being, theatre and film (theatre-buffs will know that the Belgian director Ivo van Hove directed a stage-version of the screenplay in 2008 using live-feed video as part of the staging) – and crucially between women and men. Randall accentuates the latter by repeating the scene with a series of men, so that the sense of gender and relationships as ‘script’ becomes increasingly oppressive, whether one interprets this in terms of power-relations or as a form of individual neurosis (or both). Conversely, a sense of potential liberation comes with the treatment of the script as a kind of ‘score’, which allows for at least some leeway and even subversion in performance.
However The Second Woman’s most significant departure from the film lies in its durational (one might even say ‘en-durational’) nature (for Randall herself, but also in different ways for guest artists and audience-members) as a work of ‘live art’. This gives it the added impact of a social (and social media) phenomenon, reinforced by its form as a spectacle, the staging of which resembles a kind of peep show (or even freak show). Hence the long (and exponentially lengthening) queues outside the theatre (fuelled by online chatter) and the ‘addictive’ hold the work has over spectators who find themselves unable to tear themselves away or to resist coming back.
Personally I found the work more interesting and enjoyable as a guest-performer than as an audience-member. Perhaps this says more about me as a performer and audience-member than it does about the work itself; perhaps doing one detracted from doing the other; perhaps time was also a factor – the show began at 3pm, my performance slot was at 5.15pm, and I didn’t get back in to watch until after midnight, when it was evident that Randall, guest performers and audience were suffering from fatigue.
In some ways I was most interested (and troubled) by the work as a form of spectacle, which I found problematic and in some ways disingenuous. All theatre and performance is a kind of ‘set-up’, but in this case I felt that the work both criticised and exploited this – as it did with regard to the ‘set-up’ of power-relations between women and men. In particular a trap was sprung when Randall departed from the script by offering each of the guest performers $50 before they left the stage. This equivocation between actor and character created a ‘lose-lose’ situation for both in terms of how they were judged by the audience – who weren’t aware that this was in fact the $50 honorarium that the actors had been told they would be paid for being in the show (just as the actors weren’t told that they would be ‘paid’ onstage). I didn’t take mine, but I know many others did, and were judged by members of the audience in various ways for doing so. It felt like a trick was being played, and I’m still wondering about the ethics of this. Should the audience have been informed of the situation? Should the actors have been informed – or given a choice about how to be paid? Would the ethics of the show be different if there was no audience, and it was an immersive, one-on-one experience?
Sometimes the relationship between art and life is complex and even duplicitous. Sometimes it’s not even clear which is which.
The final work I saw in the Festival, You Know We Belong Together, is a joyful and affirmative celebration of this paradox. In some ways it’s the work I feel the Festival should be proudest of.
You Know We Belong Together is a co-production with Black Swan State Theatre Company and DADAA, a local arts access organisation for people with a disability or mental illness. It’s written by Julia Hales – an actor with Down syndrome – and performed by her and others with the same condition including Joshua Bott, Patrick Carter, Lauren Marchbank, Tina Fielding, Melissa Junor and Mark Junor.
The show is about finding love and all the actors play themselves. It’s also about disability rights – including the right to live, love, work and be free. The through-line is Julia’s desire to find a romantic partner – and her dream of appearing on Home and Away, which appears to have been realised during the making of the show. This is where script and production navigate the complex and sometime problematic relationship between art and life – in my view with a good deal more authenticity than The Second Woman. Australia’s favourite TV soap is gently mocked, but there’s an underlying acknowledgement that all of our desires and dreams are shaped by stories, and that life is structured by fiction, as much as the other way around.
You Know We Belong Together has been sensitively but boldly directed by Black Swan’s Artistic Director Claire Watson, and includes some hilarious audience participation sequences (in which audience members are given scripts and asked to act out scenes with the cast – including a delicious scene written for Julia’s character in Home and Away); video sequences (shot by Lincoln Mackinnon) of the actors being interviewed and going about their daily lives; dance sequences (choreographed by Laura Boynes) in which the cast cut loose and show us some moves; strong lighting, set and costume choices by Joe Lui and Tyler Hill; and an effectively restrained but touching score by composer and sound designer Rachael Dease.
I was captivated by this show, and it changed my perception of Down syndrome (and Home and Away) forever. As with NASSIM, there was no pretence: art and life, ability and disability, professional and amateur performers, audience participation and interaction, were all seamlessly integrated. Jude Kelly’s provocation ‘Who are the Arts For?’ came to mind – and the answer: ‘Everyone.’