thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes

Review of This is Good Advice, Welcome Stranger

For my argument that they are an ‘oddity on the Australian stage’, it seems slightly paradoxical that the first two feature pieces published on this blog deal with double bills. Pre-empting Platform Youth Theatre’s onslaught of Aussie writers in March is Welcome Stranger’s This is Good Advice, featuring two shorts from two of Britain’s most important contemporary theatre artists, Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp. The back-to-back combination is additionally tantalising as audiences do not get enough opportunities to experiences these writers, particularly Churchill, on our stages. Perhaps I have been living under a rock, but this is first time I have actually seen a Churchill play performed (my third Crimp – he has been slightly more in vogue over the last few years).

Welcome Stranger have programmed Churchill’s This is a Chair and Crimp’s Advice to Iraqi Women together, with a twenty-minute interval, under the guise of director Lauren Barnes. The plays are a good match: both draw from, and parallels to, the socioeconomic and political developments of and beyond 1990s Britain. They also demonstrate the capacity of their respective writers to push the boundaries of the theatrical form with incisiveness and intelligence, underscored with a fierce, dry wit. Crimp and Churchill are very different in how they sculpt their theatre – Churchill wants to show us with metaphor, whereas Crimp wants to tell us without the middle-man of ‘character’. But regardless of your taste, they both provide significant contrast, albeit fleetingly in these shorts, to table-and-two-chairs naturalism. This is reason alone to see This is Good Advice.

With that said, Welcome Stranger’s production doesn’t fully reach the potential of either of the scripts involved. This is a Chair, the first and better of the two, is an immensely challenging concept on paper – several heavily Eurocentric, metaphorical fragments of pseudo-naturalism. Barnes has attempted to clarify the subject matter through the use of blackboards both at the beginning of each fragment to contextualise it (eg. ‘Hong Kong’ or ‘Genetic Engineering’) as well as during the action, with blackboards appearing above the actors’ heads mostly to denote character or setting. While the initial blackboards are perhaps helpful, if a little unnecessary, their use throughout the scenes is distracting and very restrictive on audience interpretation. Barnes feels the need, understandably with such a script, to closely guide spectators through the content and to a level of ‘understanding’. However, this ultimately reduces the potency of Churchill’s metaphors, and if anything, makes the piece feel even more Eurocentric and contextually isolated. Some parts worked well, in particular the ‘Pornography’ and ‘The Northern Ireland Peace Process’ couplet and Reuben Stanton’s subtly evocative sound design, and the cast possessed an energetic enthusiasm for the material and in the difficult, very rushed scene transitions. However, I can’t help but wonder how This is a Chair would have worked had the audience not been pointed so firmly in one direction, and had the fragments been given more time to sit together.

Similarly, the decision to have the audience ushered out and the stage re-set for Advice to Iraqi Women, after only thirty minutes or so of performance to return for only another ten, was very strange for a production already fragmentary in nature. While I didn’t mind admiring the swish Bella Union bar, the interval seemed to work to segregate the pieces rather than encouraging them to resonate with each other.

Before discussing Barnes’s approach to Advice to Iraqi Women, I should disclose that Martin Crimp is my favourite playwright and that I have strong opinions on what I think he is trying to achieve in, and with, theatre. He is such a profound writer; each line is so significant and so loaded; and like the later plays of his contemporary, Sarah Kane, I believe the direction needs to be understated to let the words do the work. While Barnes creates a simple and interesting aesthetic for Advice to Iraqi Women, setting three chairs in sand with candles surrounding them, she falls into the difficult situation of having the actors embody characters.

A well-known Melbourne playwright told me that during his time at the Royal Court, Martin Crimp had proudly proclaimed to him that “character is dead”. Indeed, the way in which Crimp constructs his scripts would support such a statement – most, especially the newer works, are only ever denoted with slashes or numbers rather than names and characters. I believe that Crimp’s idea is that actors are there to tell the audience directly what he wants to say, rather than to provide the traditional theatrical framework of a character for them to identify with. This keeps the words and the ideas distanced, while allowing for the theatrical experience of ‘performed’ text. Barnes’s decision to have three female actors as three very identifiable characters – a doctor (complete with stethoscope), humanitarian activist (‘Every Child Matters’ t-shirt) and bourgeois trophy-wife – seemed to contradict, and distract from the essence and intent of, Crimp’s writing.

While many of the audience appreciated and audibly enjoyed the irony and wit of Crimp’s narrated dialogue, I found it difficult to become involved. The script was beautiful, echoing his work in Fewer Emergencies, complete with the usual Crimp nuance and depth in his discussion of the middle-class obsessions of parenting (the title being an ironic contrast). However, I felt that his words and his rhythms were lost in the attempt, again, to push the audience in one direction and make challenging work more ‘accessible’. For writers who, I believe, are concerned with the multiplicity of possibility and interpretation in theatre, the pieces felt a little too literal.

The boldness of programming these two works together is creditable, and Welcome Stranger, considering this as well as their backlog of productions, are, like Crimp and Churchill, unafraid of pushing boundaries. It’s a double bill worth seeing to challenge your notions of theatre, to experience some of Britain’s best theatre writing, and to witness an emerging theatre company offer something different.

This is Good Advice runs at New Ballroom, Trades Hall until 10th Feb,

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