Melbourne International Arts Festival episode! The gang talk all things festival – featuring Song For a Weary Throat by Rawcus Ensemble (and featuring the Invenio Singers) and Re-Member Me by Dickie Beau. Intermission chats include the Elysian Ensemble and Hubei Symphony Orchestra. Coming soon June Thomas at The Wheeler Centre, The Breeders and Phils choral group Gloriana Chamber Choir (its Messiah time!). We are working on transcribing the history of our episodes – please donate or subscribe today, we need 6 full paid subscribers to reach our target. Thanks for listening and share with your friends.
Philip: Hello and welcome to the forty first episode of Across the Aisle your monthly dose of culture from Melbourne Australia. I’m Philip Thiel and I’m joined in the studio by my friend and fellow festival junkie Carla Donnelly. Carla are you in withdrawal?
Carla: I think I’m in recovery, I think that’s the technical term. (both laugh)
Philip: On this episode we debrief the newly named again Melbourne International Arts Festival which glammed up the city last month. How did this annual well-funded smorgasbord of art from around the world affect us? We’ll babble at intermission between critical discussions of two particular MIAF shows; Song for a Weary Throat by the RAWCUS Ensemble and Re-Member me by Dickie Beau. These two productions were staged a week apart in the small underground vault called Fairfax Theatre at Arts Centre Victoria. So. Carla let’s descend together again to our first show.
Carla: Song for a Weary Throat by RAWCUS. Fifteen bodies surface in the wake of a disaster. When all is lost what keeps them afloat? Set in an abandoned dance hall that echoes with haunting airs, this is a breathtaking work of physical and vocal wonder performed by the RAWCUS Ensemble of performers, with and without disability. Driven by a surging current of emotion it travels across the aftermath of a terrible loss, trauma, heartbreak, failure, through the moments that offer some promise of hope real or illusory. Also joined onstage is the Invenio Singers with the RAWCUS ensemble and that is very much how we meet the players.
Carla: A large loud bang, boom, crash, impact happens, and the players are illuminated on the stage – scattered and following my whole thing of like not reading about things before I go and see them not a lot. I kind of had to come to all of this stuff intuitively through the play. I have seen a lot of RAWCUS’s work before, so I know that is mostly a lot of movement, sometimes quite abstract storytelling but it really did have that. To me it was like observing emotions on the ocean watching them roll through and roll out watching the stages of grief almost. There was dance, the singing of the choir which sort of came in and out as they circled around in and out through the performers, and it goes beyond sort of creating these scenes to me like it’s still very kinetic. It’s a very abstract work and things that I find very difficult to relax into because it’s not structured it’s not what I am used to seeing. It’s interpretive, but I found this so beautiful and emotional. How did you come to it Phil?
Philip: I am so interested in what you’re saying because I found this realistic.
Philip: You know agreeing with everything that you say about the abstraction the unfamiliarity the sense of surprise. I haven’t seen anything this authentic to…
Philip: to what it is to be around people to see how people move to be in a crowd to suffer. It’s been a while since I’ve seen something that seems so true to human experience.
Philip: And while I find more refined choreographed structured pieces more familiar, perhaps artistically, this strives for something that is so daring to me which is that kind of chaotic experience of actually being alive symbolized most unusually but powerfully in this production by dirt.
Philip: You know this was a dusty stage and we were up close to it. You know one of the performers in fact was coughing and at times you know little semitransparent lines of dust would simply fall onto this already cluttered autumnal sort of stage that at times people would hopelessly try to sweep only to have the chaos restored. So, it was semi indoors, outdoors, dance hall type environment that was nonetheless totally abandoned and within that disaster after disaster is striking these people. It’s fascinating to me that you said stages of grief because I have exactly that phrase here in my notes. There was something about processing trauma that was something 9/11-ish about those opening flashes in terms of what I was remembering or having brought to mind. And another thing to note about the opening of the production is that before all of that noise a performer was scrawling some words onto an item of furniture which are the opening of Inferno by Dante where somebody is lost in the woods completely needy and about to experience an impossible journey you know needing guidance needing some kind of process needing to go deeply into those stages of experience that the poet experiences in that poem and that these performers appear to be supporting each other to experience. I mean one of the beautiful elements of this very emotional piece for me was seeing in that chaos the naturalness of cooperation and support for others. That’s another element that I thought was quite authentic and rare which is that so often dramas are set up to be falsely oppositional and contentious and simplistic but here it was like we’re all traumatic and traumatized. These are the tools we have available. This is what we’re hearing. What are we going to do? What is it going to look like?
Carla: Yeah that’s really that’s fascinating. And I come at it in a similar way or maybe from the other side as well where I was really struck, for lack of a better word, by, I’m and I’m still intensely curious and fascinated by works that are text-less, well that don’t have dialogue I should say and how they can still be conveyed in such a rich and material, primal, way and still give me all of those feels. Or maybe the other side where it’s like instead of being so didactically bludgeoned I have to reach into my own experience to meet it in the middle and that’s where I find works like these incredible because other works you know where it is a narrative and it’s spoken and you understand it and you intuitively can watch the actors and you’re like “yeah I know how that feels” and it unravels this sort of narrative inside of you when you match all of your emotional linguistics and lexicon to the notes that kind of come out of the page. This, it’s like a dialogue with your base self. I can’t really describe it but I find it very deeply unsettling but so generous at the same time and I think that is also ultimately what the message of the show was, that whole, and so going back to what I was saying about really thinking about dialogue-less performances, it really did create a space for their performance to take care of each other. They didn’t have to worry about doing all of this physical work and stepping on each other’s lines or remembering lines. They were very sweetly touching each other making sure the other was okay. There was moments of comfort because they were genuinely in distress because they were coughing or moving around was becoming difficult.
Philip: And in some ways the outsourcing of that labour to the choir allowed for those not singing to move and observe and respond physically, gesturally, in that way. I love your analysis of the nature of wordless theatre because it also endorses criticism or conversation as a way for the audience to respond. I mean this is the kind of production where you’re really not sure what the person you attended with is going to start with as you start using language to think about this space without language and even the choral music performed by the really inventive and wonderful Invenio Singers was kind of antique and ancient in its style and resisted the language itself and yet there was something there. There was something emotive about the way that they formed their phrases and connected to each other much more maybe not much more but but more rhythmically and in a more orchestrated way superficially at least than the people who at times seemed to be moving in a really wild, wild way around the stage.
Carla: And now thinking and talking about it, also understanding that the Invenio singers made all of this music with their mouths. And that’s the same thing with this performance it was all made with emotions and bodies. There was no, no language quote unquote no kind of scaffolded artifice of you know the modern world it was really people. I think we’ve actually got some of the Invenio music to share so we’ll get Ron to play a clip for everyone, so you can understand the kind of atmosphere that was created.
(plays 10 second clip of the Invenio Singer – choral music)
Philip: That takes me right back to the Fairfax theatre. It was so sonic.
Carla: It was really otherworldly which I think obviously was on purpose. Yeah completely not what I was expecting. RAWCUS is a fantastic production company – really interesting, inventive work I would strongly recommend. If this, if you can deal with this kind of level of abstraction, I think you would be well rewarded checking this production company out.
Philip: Reward is the right word. It is such a gift if only to see diverse bodies moving together. I mean the critical commentary is not the only point to a performance like this, but you do leave noticing how radically conformist so much other artwork is in terms of the body and the movement of the body.
Philip: Just wonderful humanity in diversity on display.
Carla: Fantastic. Thank you.
(ambient sounds of a crowd lightly chatting fades in)
Philip: It’s intermission!
Carla: Do we even have time during festival?
Philip: Exactly! Where are we clashing? Cloak your bag.
Carla: Eat eat eat a hand food with me!
Philip: Grab your water. Did you go big on MIAF?
Carla: I actually, well, I mean define big, but I did see quite a few shows – for shows that are recreational for me like things that I am just seeing that isn’t work, which is judging (for Green Room Awards) or our show. I’m pretty much exclusively seeing work by black creators, or Indigenous Australian creators. So, I went and saw Prize Fighter and My Name is Jimmy and I think that’s actually it, that I saw. Apart from the stuff that we’re covering. What about you?
Philip: Yeah, I also saw little other than this. I was going to head to the Botanic Gardens for Fire Gardens.
Carla: I know but there was like 3000 people on the waiting list.
Philip: Yeah, my theory about that is they needed to let more people in. Come on.
Carla: Oh really?
Philip: Just light a fire and let people work it out. (laughs)
Carla: Oh yeah you and the whole “safety thing”. (laughs)
Philip: Chuck your children in and let’s see what happens. (both laugh)
Carla: Let’s just like go back to my previous comments on previous years. So, this was the most successful financially performing International Arts Festival of all time.
Philip: It didn’t feel like it.
Carla: Yeah but I reckon it’s because of very shrewd decisions like this. This Fire Gardens thing was only 10 bucks and a Thousand Doors which was also only ten bucks but it’s like high volume, Instagramable, it’s very clever programming. It’s like you know very little cost for big bang for buck.
Philip: After the Taylor Mac disaster of the original pricing announcement we’ve swung the other way.
Carla: So, Jonathan Holloway good work.
Philip: From 1000 bucks to 10 bucks.
Carla: No, I think it’s like 50?
Carla: And then we also got you know so much good Indigenous content as well. Have you been doing anything else apart from festivals? Have you seen anything?
Philip: Well more recently I’ve seen a couple of weirdly connected things. I went to Elysian ensemble’s performance to celebrate the 100-year independence of Poland by performing Polish.
Carla: Yes, we talked about this the last episodes! How was it?
Philip: It was under attended at Meat Market – that very large hall in North Melbourne, but a spectacular performance and quite moving because it was a global event where many contemporary music ensembles or modern music ensembles from around the Western world were celebrating this hundred years of Polish independence which coincided with the end of the First World War. So, it was on that eleventh of November. One hundred years on and we, being in Australia, were early in the day for that day you know.
Carla: Ok so we were like the first.
Philip: That’s it.
Philip: It was like you know here we are in Melbourne launching some crazy Polish sounds. Hearing some wild wind and percussion playing in a little bunch of weirdos in North Melbourne. So that was very positive and oddly like an odd expression of nationalism and avant-gardism meeting each other.
Carla: Wow, it sounds very sexy. (laughs)
Philip: Sure. Well interesting in terms of the fact that in Poland itself there was some problematic gatherings on the same day that made people wonder how Poland is doing politically in terms of this sort of global question mark around the far right.
Philip: So, so, so I felt connected to that. Conversely you know I’d I’d I’d seen somebody screaming into a flute to celebrate.
Carla: Oh my God “screaming into a flute” – band name! (laughs)
Philip: And the other show that somehow connects with this for me is I was taken by my Sinophile husband to see the Hubei Symphony Orchestra from China and perform Lake Honghu in concert, so this is an opera from 1956 which is communist propaganda writ large.
Carla: Oh My God amazing!
Philip: It was so thrilling. The audience, I was gonna say congregation, the audience spontaneously, not really spontaneously, stood up you know in a military type way. At the end of this performance which was just uplifting you know I just I just in my safe democratic world of Melbourne life you know how safe are we? Whatever, I let it go. This experience was dangerous and intriguing, and I was just surrounded by people that I kind of felt affection for. You know we’ve been to some shows sent again by my sinophile husband at Melbourne Festival where the audience is. Chinese Australians and you know it’s different right. The energy is from a culture that’s unfamiliar there is just more people on their phones. Bit more of a relaxed starting time and yet when the moments come, they really come.
Carla: Yeah ok.
Philip: There’s this sense of unity. This was at Melbourne Recital Centre. Which was just a pleasure. That I was really thankful for.
Carla: How wonderful.
Philip: Yeah, a couple of nationalistic things.
Carla: And Eastern I guess kind of in a way
Philip: Yes indeed
(theatre call bell starts ringing)
Carla: Oh, I think we have to run!
Philip: More festival!
(audience sounds fade out)
Philip: Okay. We are back at Fairfax theatre for our second Melbourne International Arts Festival show Remember Me, and the blurb tells us that Dickie Beau might never get to play Shakespeare’s tragic Prince. So the award winning lip sync fabulist has transformed into a human mixtape channelling recordings of the great historical performances of theatre’s most famous role, seance meets documentary in this wry voyage remembering the ghosts of Hamlet past and stumbling upon the remarkable story behind the greatest Hamlet almost-never-seen because no recording exists except in the memories of those who were there. Featuring the voices of Sir John Gielgud and John Barrymore to Kenneth Branagh and Peter O’Toole, Remember-Me is a humorous and haunting examination of memory and mortality.
So, this piece was such a festival show. Something that is un-categorisable brought to a standard that allows it to tour internationally but leaving you thinking “what just happened”! I mean lip syncing is uncanny at the best of times and this was taking that uncanny quality of the unspoken but represented word to whole new levels because look we know and love the voices of these great British actors, these Shakespearean trained performers, who end up being wizards in Middle Earth. We know their voices we love their voices we know their bodies and then suddenly it’s Dickie Beau in some kind of gym outfit doing in McClellan’s gurgly swallow doing John Geilgud’s wry expression followed by the most thoughtful mono syllable you’ve ever heard in your life.
Philip: I mean this was dripping with actorly panache and depth. And for me thinking of nationalism and propaganda. For me this was almost a defence of acting as just a key element of the arts in our culture. I mean we are after Shakespeare in so many ways as goers to the Western Theatre in English and here was a real haunting. Here was England and men channelling death and profound thought through this sort of wry body but unironic deeply as well of Dickie Beau. We were there on opening night, there was a real sense of intrigue in the audience and I found the whole thing compelling. What about you?
Carla: Well what the fuck! Again, I had no idea what this was going to be, and I don’t think anybody else did to be perfectly honest. God this gave me so many feels, like we can go very like super intellectual if you like or just like super feely if you like or somewhere in between. But there was so many threads to this. So, you’ve got a very twee twinkie gay man in running shorts and a rainbow headband and a singlet simultaneously taking the piss out of actorly machismo but at the same time paying homage for the queer men who came before him and queer men who, the sissy boy – I’ve been thinking about masculine sissy boys for months since we saw Spartacus. And so, this really struck a chord with me because Hamlet is you know the ultimate “masc for masc” role in the theatre. And to hear these very willowy scathing wispy voices take on this character. And also Hamlet is like you know Shakespeare is English, this is also their heritage they obviously so quite revere. So it has this kind of added element of gravitas to it and it just felt like a deconstruction of sissiness and masculinity in theatre but also at the same time a remembering, a reconstruction, of how queer people gave us the art and the world that we experience today and how many of them we lost through AIDS. And that he can be a sissy fairy prancing around on stage lip syncing to old recordings of the greats doing Hamlet, playing with mannequins and sticking them back together because of these men, and ultimately women, who enabled him to be in this place. It’s a very rich, multilayered, heartfelt and deep work. Yeah that made me so proud to be queer.
Philip: Yeah. Because however masculine Hamlet is, and I mean that varies from performance to performance, but however masculine he is you just don’t get theatre without queers. I mean that was the polemical message of the play.
Philip: You know der! And yet John Gielgud as I learned for the first time horrendously was barred from travelling to the United States because of some minor crime because of some petty homophobic act.
Carla: Some, some encounter in a park.
Philip: It’s disgusting. What else did I learn that there was a performance this legendary performance by a dying man in the role of Hamlet that everyone remembers as somehow the intersection of all of the things that you’re talking about, haunting no longer being just theatrical, for gay men in the 80s. You know that closeness to death that was experienced by so many people viscerally starting to inform the culture, the theatre, the body, the voice, and so for as you say this sort of young enabled white man to be bouncing around a stage in queer loving Melbourne was, was done with such thoughtfulness and with so wonderfully problematising of what it means to have this freedom and what it means to wave a rainbow around. And how if we allow ourselves to listen to our fathers as Hamlet the character struggles to in that play. But if we actually go, you know “daddy” in the best sense of the word, what happened to you? What was it like for you? Then that can be re-empowering and just sort of grounding in a way that was spiritual? You know I did experience this like, I don’t know, I need I need a richer vocabulary for this element of theatre because I often go to terms like liturgical and ritual but there was something about being in this particular space with this particular performer which was along those lines and personal in in a visceral way. I mean I’m a gay man. I’m about the age of the performer. I believe myself to be somebody who has a sense of the importance of queer history and performance history. And yet I don’t know. I don’t know that I can out gay IAN MCKELLEN even as Gandalf – you know even when we are at our most popular cultural even when we are selling what we’ve got you know when we are being pimped out these, these men are legends you know, you know they’ve earned their status as legendary.
Carla: But I think the point of the show as well is that we lost so many that didn’t have the chance, that never got the chance. And for people of our age who we’ve you know remember a time before AIDS actually had treatments that worked, let alone people stopping being infected – for people our age this is a beautiful homage and a beyond insightful interrogation of privilege and performance and just so sweet and lovingly created. But it’s such a public and national service to tell these stories for younger queer people.
Carla: Because the stories that they get for I am I just don’t I’m in contact with a lot of young queer people at school and they just don’t understand they don’t understand AIDS and you’ve got something like the Bohemian Rhapsody film coming out now which is like this total queer washing understanding of you know – it’s like well Freddie was bi and fucked around and got AIDS and died and that’s just what happened to gay men back then. It’s just when we have these kinds of messages in the world Dickie Beau is not only doing his service well but it’s also it’s celebrated.
Carla: And it was a fun show. Like we sound we’re talking very seriously about this show. But it was super fun and very funny.
Carla: You know we’re talking about this very seriously very critically very emotionally because you know I walked out of there crying, it was such, it was something that I didn’t know that I needed to see but it was super fun. It was fun. It was funny, it was light hearted. It really made use of all the gifts that he had been given and the freedoms that he had been given and the space that he takes up as a white man in this world. It was outstanding.
Philip: I love lip-syncing as an art form and I have you know this is really ending on a side note that I’ve never seen it elevated to quite this level. This was you know a modernist lip syncing.
Philip: So intriguing
Carla: Remix, mixtape.
Philip: Yes. Yes.
Philip: And it’s almost like I wish that the core idea of this play, I hope that the core idea of this play, was just that simple insights that gay men have been lip syncing in the 20th century.
Carla: That just fucking blew my mind Phil.
Philip: Let’s go from there.
Carla: You know because that’s all they were doing.
Carla: Pretending not to be gay. Oh my God.
Philip: Sticking to the script perfectly.
Carla: Wow. Okay.
Philip: Mike drop! Dickie Beau showed us this. And I don’t know. I have faith that the fact that lip-syncing survives as the archetypally queer performance art. Suddenly I’m optimistic.
Carla: You’ve just explained the reason why. Wow. Dickie Beau
Philip: Thank you. Dickie.
(a few seconds silences before next segment)
Philip: Coming soon. All right. The festival is over. What do we do next?
Carla: Well we kind of get a bit of a lull don’t we sort of late November/December before summer festival season.
Philip: It’s like the weird last shows of the season.
Philip: Of the companies.
Carla: There’s still a few things because then there’s like there’s still music festival so I’m gonna go and see The Breeders, like the Gen X queer lady that I am.
Carla: Yep Ron’s giving the thumbs up. That’s early December. But it’s totally sold out. So, don’t bother. The other thing that I’m going to see with you is June Thomas.
Philip: Yes. What a voice.
Carla: The Waves, Slate’s feminist culture podcast.
Philip: June Thomas is rocking that whole Slate podcast space.
Carla: Well she’s the managing producer.
Philip: Love it, love it.
Carla: And she’s going to be in town. She’s be the head judge of the “So You Think You Can Pod” competition that the Wheeler Centre holds annually. I think this is the second one. But she’s going to do a talk beforehand so that’s early December as well.
Carla: So, if you’re interested in that come along and see us.
Carla: What are you doing?
Philip: Well I’m doing lots of choral stuff you know I’m in the Gloriana Chamber choir so I’m sort of dipping my toe into. I mean I guess all scenes like this lip-syncing you know, knitting comes to mind. What about choral music in Melbourne like everything just flourishes beneath the surface. There’s all sorts of wonderful things to hear I mean just start with Messiah, this year it’s everywhere. December 1st St Peter’s Eastern Hill and other places but there’s a new group called Hamer singers don’t know anything about them, but they seem intriguing and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral of all places they’re singing this wonderful contemporary material by John Tavener and others I mean I just can’t get enough I’m kind of hooked at the moment I’m making this.
Carla: Are you secretly jealous? (laughs)
Philip: I have to go you know explore the competition .
Carla: HAHA you have to go and do some recon.
Philip: Actually, they are literally across the road you know.
Carla: You can’t have three choirs I’m putting my foot I’m putting my foot down. (laughs)
Philip: Wise. (laughs)
Philip: Yeah this is the limit. Sunday mornings and this. Yes this. But yeah, I don’t know. I guess I’m recommending not necessarily joining my bandwagon but just happily pursuing your own.
Carla: Choirs check them out.
(soft electronic theme music fades in)
Philip: And on that note that’s that for this month. Thank you so much for listening. We hope you enjoyed our MIAF show. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org on our Facebook page, @acrossaisle or via Twitter @acrossaisle. Thank you to Mark Barrage and Ron Killeen from ShackWest for our audio perfection. And thank you as always to the performers who are making the art that we value so dearly and that affected us so profoundly this time around. Without you we’d have to stage our own ghostly recreations of Shakespeare plays. And thank you listener for listening. See you Carla.
Carla: Bye Phil.
Philip: See you next month.
(soft electronic theme music fades out)