audience conversations, audiences, Politics, Theatre

in conversation: on richard ii, julia gillard, sexualised language and why we are so a-political

RICHARD II made me incredibly proud. I was proud that this work was being made in Melbourne, being made by an independent company, MKA, and being supported by programs like Speak Easy. Most of all I was so very proud that Olivia Monticciolo and Mark Wilson just won’t shut up. I was proud that they grabbed Shakespeare’s text with their teeth and dragged it into our ugly present. This is independent theatre at its best: vicious, dangerous, entertaining, hilarious and completely of this moment in time. Not to mention that both performers are incredibly addictive. You just want to see more. 

RICHARD II surprised, delighted and angered me at every turn. I think the quality of the dialogue that emerged from it shows just how hard these theatre-makers are working and how hard they are making their audiences work. So here is my contribution to this conversation. I grabbed two lovely young women I’d never met before and put a microphone in their faces. The two were Tori Ball and Louise Mapleston and they had plenty to say. Thank you to both these two, to Josiah Lulham for doing the introduction, to Sarah Walker WHO TYPED A THIRD OF THIS AND MADE ME INCREDIBLY HAPPY IN DOING SO and, of course, a massive thank you to Mark and Olivia. Seriously. Thank you. Keep fucking shit up. 

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: Tell me what you just saw. What happened to you just now?

LOUISE: I had a bit of a giggle and a lot of thoughts. It kind of brought me back: it was very obvious about Julia Gillard and the Labour split and I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in a long time, and it’s kind of cool now we have the space and a way we can kind of look at the whole ordeal in retrospect.

TORI: I think it was very Australian. They were so passionate, and then towards the end they were just like “Ah, we’ll just have a cup of tea and not worry about it”. I think they were really making a point about how we think about politics.

FLEUR: As in we build up to something great and then undermine ourselves?

TORI: Yeah, by just choosing to not actually follow through and do anything.

FLEUR: Why do you think we do that? What makes that uniquely Australian?

TORI: I’m not sure we’ve ever had any motivation to actually have to put ourselves out there. I dunno. I feel like for a couple of generations, it’s been pretty safe here, relative to other countries.

FLEUR: There’s been a thought that I’ve heard thrown around this year that part of the reason we are as we are as a nation is that other countries have been defined by fighting against a colonial power, whereas our defining moment as a nation was fighting for that power.

TORI: I think that’s relevant but, even though we’re still fighting for others people’s power, that moment was so long ago. I don’t know if we still identify that way.

LOUISE: I think we do. If we’re looking at the English coming into Australia and colonising things, in Richard, she [Olivia Monticciolo as Gillard/Henry] was there already. She was already there, and he was like “Fuck off bitch, fuck off bitch, I’ve already got this”, like, taking something. I think that showed the greediness, and I think it showed extreme sexism. I mean, sexism’s just everywhere, but there’s a real vocabulary of slang and words that we use in this show that really show that as well.

FLEUR: What sort of words? Say some bad words for me.

LOUISE: Oh, mate. (Laughter) Like ‘cunt.’ ‘Cunt’ is huge. ‘Fucking bitch,’ and things like that. After travelling a little bit, I’ve noticed that we definitely use those words a lot more than other countries. I don’t know if we use ‘cunt’ a lot more, but it is in a very aggressive way.

TORI: Totally. Our culture is so absurd in the way that we’re so willing to use those terms derogatively.

LOUISE: But everyone went silent when they made a joke about “Oh yeah, well my dad’s alive”. Everyone was laughing at calling her a fucking bitch and things like that. This person is right there in front of us but this guy’s already dead. Why do we have more respect for the dead than the actual humans living here right now who are being discriminated against?

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: The moment that I found really interesting in terms of the sexism was when I’d forgotten she was female. As you do, because it’s not particularly extraordinary. They started the play by saying “I have a vagina, you have a penis” so they wanted us to remember but then I just slipped back into thinking of her as a character – as a leader – rather than as a woman. Then there was the moment when he got the numbers. He started yelling, “I’ve got the numbers, bitch. Suck on that! Suck on my numbers, bitch!” And suddenly it was so overtly sexual and degrading again; inescapably man vs woman in that moment.

TORI: That’s interesting. I didn’t even think of that. For me it was more a reflection of what I think a lot of people are frustrated by: how temporary our politics are.

LOUISE: It just seems so childlike. I guess that’s the whole point is that our politics is still so child-like. It is still a whole lot of adults insulting one another.

FLEUR: I guess it reminded me of that moment in politics when you go “really? Is she still having to be the Woman Leader and not just the Leader?” Yeah. Yeah, she is actually.

LOUISE: In terms of relating it back to the story, I think it is so clever. King Henry who took over, he was seen as a decent human.

TORI: I could see it coming. The change. How the power would change but I didn’t expect the transition to the Julia Gillard thing. That was really interesting.

LOUISE: Except her dancing! That was where I went “what is going on?”

TORI: I thought that was like her day-dream/nightmare moment.

FLEUR: The lap dance moment?

TORI: With Mark dressed as Julia Gillard. Yeah.

LOUISE: And sort of oddly arousing as well.

FLEUR: Oddly arousing? I’d call that extremely arousing. Laughter. Scrap that. [Totally didn’t scrap that.]

I feel that moment was where we got to go “here is the image of this woman” and it is all butt and tits. And nose but she came out butt first. It was just reminding us, this is how this woman is portrayed. Was portrayed every day in the newspapers; every day in the cartoons.

TORI: I guess it is going to be a long time before we can talk about politics without physical differences coming into it.

Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

LOUISE: Whenever Mark was onstage as King, it was always rather grand – spotlight and ‘look at me’ – and he had those gold pants on but it wasn’t overtly sexual or anything like that. I guess that really shows the difference between this ‘female king’ and the ‘male king’. The seriousness of it. You didn’t take her seriously but you took Mark seriously –

TORI: Even though he was acting like such a child?

LOUISE: Yeah because he had that grandeur and this authority about him.

FLEUR: Someone said to me as it ended that we in theatre have this conversation all the time: “why isn’t more political stuff happening on the mainstage?” and then we come here and this is perhaps the most political stuff I’ve seen on the stage in years.

TORI: Yeah. To represent a former political leader as they did, that’s pretty ballsy!

FLEUR: Yes and to be so in this moment! And in last year but so much of it is this week and in this moment, right down to the mention of the terror alert. Why do you think we’re not seeing more people confronting politics head on in our theatres?

TORI: Short answer? Part of me wants to say that the majority are quite disengaged by our politics. Maybe it is that the section of our demographics that are engaged are quite polarised. It is hard for them to unite to make or see something.

LOUISE: Yeah, the first thing that really comes to mind for me is accessibility. Personally I have no issues with seeing political theatre but I’m probably considered a left wing, yuppie-type. But are people going to be offended if they see these things?

TORI: It’s like “why not? Why not make this?”

FLEUR: I think that is partly about our Australian-ness. I think it comes back to what you said at the start about “oh this is a big point we’re going to make! Awww actually let’s not quite make it.”

LOUISE: Tim-tam and a cup of tea.

FLEUR: Yes! There is something there and there is something about our reluctance to show how seriously we’re taking ourselves. I’m sure this isn’t just an Australian issue but issue-based theatre has kind of a dirty name here because people go “I don’t want to be beaten over the head with an issue”.

TORI: Yet this is actually a space where people are invited to experience it in their own way. It is probably one of the best ways to talk about it.

FLEUR: Yes. It is a metaphoric space. It allows us to create the space we need for these questions.

LOUISE: I guess another risk is looking at the newspapers and larger audiences who aren’t just involved in the little Fringe niche is how they will react to it. It could potentially bring a bad name –

FLEUR: Mark has done worse.

Lou: I heard.

TORI: I just want to see it again because there was so much I didn’t have space to think about because they had so much to say.

LOUISE: I’d recommend it to my mum. She doesn’t know a thing about Shakespeare but she’d really engage with the content and the politics. She’s not particularly arty but I think she would get a lot out of this show. It would make her think.

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: And one more question absolutely to finish: could you just say your name and what you do. So like “My name is Fleur and I’m a playwright and theatre director and I fell down last week and grazed my knee and it made me feel like I was eight years old.”

TORI: I’m Tori. I’m an arts student and it was really windy when I cycled today. It was tough.

LOUISE: I’m Lou. I’m a social work student and I really love jazz music.

FLEUR: Thank you so much guys. Holy shit.

You can find Louise here, MKA here and Sarah Walker’s photography here. 

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conversation, creativity, Dramaturgical Analysis, interview, Theatre, writing

in conversation: mark wilson on narrative, surprise, shakespeare and whatever this song is called

Two weeks ago I sat down with theatre maker Mark Wilson for a chat. He is the creator of Unsex Me which I discussed on the blog with audience members  last month. He is an actor, director, writer and dramaturge and is currently undertaking Playwriting Australia’s dramaturgy internship with me at MTC. Mark’s passion for theatre is contagious and his delight in rigorous intellectual interrogation of art left me elated. He is a joy to talk to and, while it can be hard to convey tone in a transcript, know that there was a whole lot of laughter, consumption of brownies and self-decricapting grimaces. So picture this: a cold, rainy day. We are upstairs at the Malthouse, two pots of tea between us. We begin. 

 

SFB: Tell me what you’ve been thinking about this week, Mark Wilson. What’s been on your mind?

Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative or plot.

SFB: What about narrative or plot?

Mark: They’re not very interesting to me but sometimes you need it to be the vehicle. The theme.

I saw a film last night and it is a lot about how fucked Ireland is and I thought it was an appallingly made film. After, my aunty said to me “well wasn’t that the most profound film you’ve ever seen?”. I had to say “I can appreciate that the themes were there but I didn’t think it was well made.” I closed my eyes with boredom a few times. It was so achingly sentimental.

SFB: Good for the soul, isn’t it? Achingly sentimental? Don’t we all just want a story, Mark? Don’t we all just want a nice beginning, middle and end?

Mark: Maybe that’s what we want but it’s not what we all need.

SFB: What do we need?

Mark: We need to think about the world.

SFB: So when you read a play that excites you, what is it that’s working for you?

Mark: Well if it is an old play, it’s when characters start reflecting. If it is a new play it is about surprise

SFB: Do you get surprised in old plays?

Mark: Very rarely. I get surprised by the ideas characters express but the plots, almost invariably, are not surprising.

SFB: What surprises you in new plays?

Mark: Form. And… the surprising attacks of angles. Yeah. Often it is a formal shift. Suddenly we are all dancing.

SFB: Yes, seldom is my surprise the actual plot. If people are trying to surprise me with a plot – if that is their big reveal, that some guy has been dead the whole time – well then narrative is the least surprising surprise you can have.

Mark: Narrative: Uuuuughh!

SFB: I don’t know how to transcribe that sound. Just a lot of ‘u’s I think. And some ‘gh’s.

Mark: I think a ‘gh’. I’m a big fan of the ‘gh’.

When a playwright thinks that narrative is their whole job, you’re in trouble. If it’s not working often my first impulse is to get on the floor with it. I want to get on the floor with some good actors. I think my problem is that I look at scripts not as the final thing but as the start.

SFB: I think that’s how people should look at a script. I think a lot of the time a script that is polished and perfect doesn’t leave space for theatre. Sometimes they are beautiful to read on the page and you don’t need to stage it.

Mark: Somebody said that about F. Scott Fitzgerald. He couldn’t write a screenplay because he finished them. The directors he worked with (who eventually kicked him off) they had a movie in their head and their needed something more exciting from the screenwriter but Fitzgerald would deliver a magnum opus in screenplay form, which is useless.

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

Photography by Sarah Walker as part of her fabulous series, Clutch

The best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen hasn’t been Shakespeare.

SFB: What was that?

Mark: The Ostermeier Hamlet. It started with this slapstick burying of the king. They kept on dropping the coffin and it was raining and slippery and the guy who was burying it was doing that kind of dance when you’re like (demonstrates making robot sounds).

SFB: Popping. I’m addicted to So You Think You Can Dance. I’m sorry. Very embarrassing.

Mark: Yes. So they just threw any form, any theatrical technique that they needed at that moment. The most extraordinary moment was Laertes has returned and Hamlet is doing a soliloquy and then he stops and he says, “Laertes thinks I have wronged him. Have I wronged Laertes?” He waits then he asks it again: “Have I wronged Laertes?” Nothing. He asked it a third time and then somebody in the audience yelled out “Ya!” And Hamlet dove into the audience, climbed over the seats and was screaming at this guy in German. Then somebody on the other side yelled out in English “No! No, you haven’t wronged Laertes!” And instantly Hamlet was climbing over that way, screaming in English. So everybody was talking about it and Hamlet was reflecting on what was being said and then slipped back into the Shakespeare. It was extraordinary.

SFB: Holy shit.

Mark: Holy shit! Yeah.

A friend of mine said “nothing that is five-hundred years old can mean the same thing now as it did when it was written.” And Artaud said “if Oedipus Rex (or whatever play) isn’t working for your audience, it’s not the fault of your audience. It is the fault of Oedipus Rex.” That was big. For me. That the text, which I love, which has fed me, does not work on its own. Peter Brook said that at the beginning of his career he wanted the text to speak for itself but now he realizes the text can’t speak.

Mark laughs.

But a friend was saying that it is fucked in Melbourne because nobody can just do a show. They have to be having all these formal enquiries and that can totally isolate the audience.

SFB: I get that. And I still do love narrative. More than you, I’m sure. I still just like to tell a good story. But I am a very happy theatre-goer. It takes a lot to make me not like a show. I go in excited. You have to fucking pummel me to make me unhappy. Shows that everyone else hated I just go “they told me a story! They sung me some songs! Things were pretty! I’m happy!”

I guess I’m trying really hard to be the dramaturge slash arts writer who doesn’t bring their personal tastes with them. Which is hard because I’m also trying to be an artist who has to be full of personal taste. But I’m trying to ride that balance. I try hard to go into every show saying, “In every production there will be something that I could not have done.” That’s tricky. Sometimes. Sometimes you come out saying “well I couldn’t have done any of that because I wouldn’t have done any of that, would I!” So it is hard.

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

Sarah Walker, from Clutch again

So you’ve been thinking about narrative and plot.

Mark: I’ve been thinking about narrative and plot. I’ve been thinking lot about this. And about race and how we deal with this stuff onstage.

SFB: Was there a conclusion? Did you find out how we deal with it onstage?

Mark: No. Badly. Nakkiah Lui’s article in The Guardian was interesting. She said we need two types of revolution. The first is allowing and actively casting people who are not white as characters that where race and ethnicity doesn’t matter and the other is an increased amount of material on stages that actively represents the lives of those who are not all white and middle class.

SFB: It is difficult. I said to Danny (Delahunty) before we cast The City They Burned that if we end up with an all white cast I’ll punch us. I’m keeping a tally of all the shows I see this year and I’m keeping a tally of how many actors are in each show and how many are not white. I can’t write a play for nine actors and have them all represented as white. But who do we get at the audition? We see over a hundred people and I think we had two or three non-anglo actors audition for us. But then the company, Attic Erratic, started casting Norm and Ahmed and suddenly these diverse actors all come out of the woodwork. Does that mean that these actors are out there and not coming to these auditions because they presume that they won’t –

Mark: You bet. They presume, understandably, that they won’t be cast as the universal. And it is ridiculous. The word ‘ethnic’ we don’t apply to white people. White people are not ‘ethnic’. What? What? Yeah. Yeah man. What the fuck! We’re neutral. White man is neutral.

The new Star Wars' cast

The new Star Wars’ cast

SFB: I listen to a podcast called Popculture Happy Hour. I’d avoided it for a long time because I know nothing about pop culture but it is fantastic and I’m totally addicted, despite not knowing any of the movies they are talking about. It is just such good discussion. They did one when the photo of the new Star Wars came out and it was a table full of white men, basically. Then people started getting defensive and saying “we didn’t give you the photo to audit” and these guys on the podcast said “that implies that they are two separate things: looking at the photo and seeing that they are all white men.” It’s not an audit if that is the first thing you notice. That is just us looking and seeing the obvious.

Mark: Yes, that stuff is alive politically. And yet we chose not to engage with it.

SFB: There was another story I heard on a different podcast (I can’t remember which, maybe Snap Judgement) about a boy at a segregated school. One day the nun walked in, took down the crucifix and put up a new one with a black Jesus on it. All the kids were staring at her in shock and she says “Jesus would have probably looked more like you then me” and walks out. All these kids are just… minds blown and this guy, who is now an adult, says “still, whenever I think of Jesus, he is black, like me.” And that was such an empowering moment for him as a man, when Black Jesus came to stay.

Mark: Wonderful.

What’s this song called?

SFB: No idea.

Mark: I love this song.

We both listen in silence.

Mark: I think it’s those people who dressed like hippies on the front of their first album.

SFB: Remember me saying a few minutes ago that I know nothing about pop culture? Yeah, still true.

We listen.

So Mark, why theatre?

Mark: Why theatre? Oh no! Well real time, real space is shared. That’s fundamental. I think what fourth wall naturalism doesn’t understand is that we are all sharing the same place at the same time. Stop pretending we’re somewhere else. For me, a piece of theatre that doesn’t acknowledge its theatricality has failed already. Even texts that fundamentally do, like Shakespeare, I’ve seen appalling productions that try to pretend that we’re not here. Are you serious? Are you serious? Come on. Yeah. Real time, real place, same space, we’re sharing something. It’s an event. People come together. It’s that old phrase: we are a socially constructive form. I like that a lot. But then I also like “no, fuck that, I’m an individual in that room!” I guess I want it both ways.

SFB: I’m just firing short things at you now. So what does the term ‘responsibility’ mean for you within your art?

Mark: Yeah, yeah, okay. Responsibility. I think we have a social responsibility. I think we need to acknowledge our advantages in life. Our social and economic advantages. I think that theatre needs to do that in the way that we tell stories. You know, everyone shits on some of these playwrights but they write an unproblematic middle class world, that’s fucked. Like Marcel said in the paper today “we always say that theatre can do anything but we do an awful lot of plays set in middle class living rooms.” I think the responsibility is about how we present the world. Because all the world’s a stage and a stage is all the world. That’s why I find well plotted, complete-unto-themselves plays so boring: they’re assuming that they can present everything; that they are a complete world. Well no, actually. I’m drinking peppermint tea. Somebody picked that peppermint tea. I’m enjoying the fruits of their underpaid labour. And yeah I might be a filthy socialist of the old sort –

SFB: Look at that beard, of course you are.

Mark: Look at this beard! But then look at my pink pants. Yeah. I think it is irresponsible to answer questions and not ask them. The theatre is the place to ask.

SFB: Okay so you’ve said a lot about what we are doing wrong in theatre, how do we fix it? I’m sorry! I’m sorry! What a bitch. Who asks this stuff?

Mark: I think we need to stop producing mediocrity and things with small ambition. I don’t care that it was a hit on the West End two years ago and someone wants to be in it and it will sell tickets, why is this happening? A real interrogation of the social need. I’m not talking about being didactic, I’m talking about asking interesting questions. Why are we doing yet another play that can sit nicely and not offend? It is fucked. It is fucked. But on the other hand, I’m talking about the majors here, and there is a big audience who doesn’t share my taste and that’s fine. That’s totally fine. But my God, when they see an Arthur Miller that should be the best God damn Arthur Miller that anyone in Australia can produce. If not, then there is something wrong.

But really dramaturgy is the thing. And I don’t mean ‘dramaturgy’ as script development. I think that reducing dramaturgy to fit that definition is one of the most appalling things in the world. Why are we doing the piece? Who is it speaking to? What does this choice that we’ve made mean in relation to the text and the audience? That is the thing that needs to fix theatre. Why, beyond economics, is this the play we’re doing? But I also understand that there are enormous pressures in programming but let’s just say that if I was running one of these big houses that question would be asked a lot. And then it would be a question to marketing – “how would you sell this?” – as opposed to a question to the literary department – “how would we sell this?” What!?

I don’t know if anything I’ve said today represents my thinking at all. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I believe it.

SFB: You’re my fave. And on that note.

Mark: On that note.

 

Sarah Walker’s beautiful work can be found here. But then you all knew that, I hope. 

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audiences, criticism, Dramaturgical Analysis, Responses, Theatre

on being in on the joke, vineyards, prisons, Shakespeare and Gina Rinehart

It has been a while since I’ve written about individual shows. In truth, this is because I’ve avoided the theatre lately. I’ve written in the past about my goal to be the most enthusiastic person in the audience as the lights go down. I’ve conditioned myself: lights dim and my heart races. I hold myself up to very high standards and will only go if I know I can enter the room with a loving intellectual commitment to immerse myself in the work. But it turns out that directing full-time in the last five weeks of your Masters is very draining. Who would have guessed? It took a while to recover but the burn has finally subsided and I’ve been so delighted to return to live theatre in the last two days. There is nothing like it.

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Production photo by Sarah Walker, sarahwalkerphotos.com

I kicked off the year with Essential Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in the vineyards of Deviation Road winery in the gorgeous Adelaide Hills. The production was sheer fun. The audience’s obvious delight at every plot twist thrilled me.

Okay so, spoiler alert: Titania falls in love with a man with a donkey’s head. I thought we all knew this but, as one, the audience exclaimed with delight at the deliciousness of this wacky twist! Speaking afterwards with one of the actors, David Lamb, about this response, he spoke of the joy of touring regional areas and having audience members tell them that this was their first theatre show: “The thing about Shakespeare is that he makes his audience feel smart: you see where things are headed just before they get there.”

This is not to imply that someone who does not see theatre often is dumb, but you could easily expect them to feel isolated in Shakespeare: to be daunted by the language and to be playing a constant game of catch-up. But it was not so. The audience felt respected. They were in on the joke. The kids in their fairy capes, the regular theatre-goers and the locals for whom this was a one-off treat were all equalised by this performance. This was Shakespeare, we all got it and it was fucking hilarious.

That is the beautiful thing about Shakespeare. One of the beautiful things. The other is that I can see that production one night and the next see Foul Play’s Macbeth: two plays by the same author, a night apart and a world away.

You see, within Shakespeare is an implicit consent: we enter the theatre/vineyard/garage/alley with an awareness that we could be seeing anything. It isn’t simply that copyright has expired and directors don’t feel a need to please an estate, it is also that every theatre maker feels empowered to paint the work with their own colours; to plant their flag and declare their voice in his words; to appropriate, re-create, deviate, abbreviate; to separate themselves from their colleges and make clear to us their intentions. This can lead to some incredible theatre but it can also be dangerous as artists attempt to cram a script into a framework that it may not be suited to.

Macbeth is the first show for Foul Play and I wholeheartedly believe that this team could create something very exciting. They are committed and they made very bold choices: we saw the production twice, once with an all-female cast and then again with an all-male cast. Such bravery makes me very optimistic that their future shows will be similarly bold.

I am not here to review. This blog is here to talk about the experience of being an artist and to give a voice to our passionate, brilliant, humble community. I am not writing to critique either company. I am writing this because I had two very different experiences as an audience member in Shakespeare plays twenty-four hours apart. I am writing this because Essential Theatre wanted to share something with me as an audience-member. They wanted to share a passion for beautiful words, to create beautiful memories and to empower their audience, enthuse and infuse them with old words still hysterically funny and truthful.

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Cartoon by Mark Knight which first appeared in Murdoch press June 20th, 2012 to accompany an Andrew Bolt column.

The director’s notes for Macbeth say that the production grew out of ‘frustration at the disparity between how men and women in positions of authority are evaluated.’ She wanted to offer us the opportunity to face our own prejudices by seeing the same roles played out by both genders. This is very rich subject matter and made me think of the outstanding Quarterly Essay by Anna Goldsworth: Unfinished Business, sex, freedom and misogyny. In it Goldsworthy talks about how dangerous and sexualised language gets when it comes to women in power. Consider the language used to describe Gina Rinehart as opposed to similarly ruthless, compassionless multimillionaire, Clive Palmer. Rinehart’s own father, Lang Hancock, famously wrote “Allow me to remember you as the neat, trim, capable, attractive young lady of the Wake Up Australia Tour, rather than the slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant you have become… I am glad your mother cannot see you now.” Barry Humphries on Q&A (May, 2012) described the possibilities for satirical material as “never-ending. It’s just like the hole; Gina’s hole.” Criticism from both the left and the right cannot stop with her actions. Rather, they must comment on her body, her size, her hair and the very fact that she has a vagina. I won’t even get started on Julia Gillard but there is no denying that, in Australia in particular, the body of a woman in power is a thing to be beaten, berated, sexualised and humiliated. Pass comment on her fat arse, make a ‘joke’ menu out of her ‘red box’ and threaten the feminist bloggers with rape to shut them up: it is part of what makes Australia great.

There is so much richness when it comes to discussions of gender and power but did I get any of this from Macbeth?

In repeating the performance twice, the production felt like an experiment rather than a show and I, a subject rather than an independent audience member. I felt dumb in both senses of the word. To me it felt cold and overtly schematic. The actors did not seem to entirely own their performances as both casts were re-creating discoveries made by a completely different group. But the bigger issue is this: in repeating the production with two different gendered ensembles, a play which has always contained themes of gender, sex and power, became strangely sexless. Rather than making a male and a female version, they made two identically gender-neutral versions. To give the most simplistic of examples, the production was set in a prison and I can tell you now that the easiest way to smuggle anything in or out of that prison would be to stow it beside your cock, between your breasts or up your vagina. These parts of the actors’ bodies were invisible to their guards in every search. A strange censorship seems to have descended over the stage: mouths spoke atop pixelated torsos. Pronouns were thrown about without seeming to land on anyone. Did this challenge me to reconsider authority under the lens of gender? Not really. It all but removed gender from a play once full of it.

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Nope, no naughty bits here.

I think this is a reminder to artists that sometime, when you want to make a play about a very particular contemporary issue, perhaps you should turn to contemporary voices. Perhaps your own. Perhaps, for all Shakespeare’s adaptability and universality, sometimes he can’t say it all without a very strong, very aggressive dramaturgical team questioning every step of the process. Perhaps, in superimposing our play on his, we mire and muddy not only his intention but our own.

Again, I do not write this as a critic. If I were a critic I would mention the outstanding sound design by Dan Thorpe and the commitment of the cast and all those other positive things that are worth a mention in a review. But as an artist, I write this: sometimes we are ambitious. Sometimes that ambition is driven by an urgency to convey a particular theme or lesson. At such times we must ensure that our work is not simply a didactic vessel for, if we miss the mark a little, there must still be a heart and a story to be shared with our willing audience.

My thanks go out to my sister Hannah for her proof-reading and to David Lamb and John Kachoyan for their contribution and to Jane Howard for being my theatre date.

Programming note: I don’t usually provide a disclaimer. Writing as a Victorian theatre maker in Victoria I presume you presume that I know people in every production and I feel that I’m quite good at separating analysis from friendship. But, because I’m currently in SA and because I’m writing about two different companies in this post, I will say that I know several members of Essential Theatre and have no connections to Foul Play.

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