Friday, November 23, 2018

Baltic Circle Theatre Festival in Arterritory

My write-up of the Baltic Circle Theatre festival, which was 13th-17th of November in Helsinki, is up over at Arterritory and details a few of the shows that I saw. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture a lot of the program for logistical reasons, leaving me with a slightly skewed version of events.

Still, it was interesting to revisit the festival after 10 years and notice some significant changes.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

All the Sex I Ever Had

It's possible that sex and I aren't best mates. I kind of view the subject with some awkwardness, a degree of suspicion, and occasional periods of unbridled enthusiasm. That doesn't make me weird - after all, attitudes and feelings about sex don't just come from within ourselves, but from our environment, and sex appeared in the environment of my childhood years in rural Australia mostly as a weapon in the fight for dominance in schools, sporting arenas, and other competitive situations. Forgive me if I remain more than a little scarred from that.

So to this day I appreciate when someone can give honest information about the topic, because for me just about the only source outside the family was the book Where Did I Come From? (surely a bible of sorts for many kids of rural Australia) which at least explains basic heterosexual biology and potential outcomes when bodies are arranged in certain formations. Another manual was John Marsden's Secret Men's Business, which explains things that are otherwise only referred to in the schoolyard through innuendo or hinted at in certain TV sitcoms. In both cases, what I appreciated was the directness, which, though it seems simple, may actually be difficult or embarrassing to achieve.

All the Sex I Ever Had is 6 seniors sitting at a desk and talking directly to the audience about their sex histories. Beginning at the birth of the eldest (for us in the Espoon kaupunginteatteri in Espoo, Helsinki, it was 1932), the history is chronologically recited as experiences happen. After the eldest, the other 5 slowly enter the picture, often following the first in their (fairly diverse) life experiences. Our actors (selected from the local population, I assume with diversity, excitement, and dramatic weight of their narratives in mind) masturbate, fall in love, break up, marry, and just fuck their way through kitchen tables, hotel rooms, nightclubs, family holidays, and boats. Every 10 years, the readers are interrupted by a dance-break with the cheesiest music that can be found in that period, which also plays gently in the background (as kind of a 'smoother') as they relate their stories.

Photo: Singapore Arts Festival performance of All the Sex I Ever Had

From the opening pledge which the audience takes not to reveal any of the information outside the theatre, there's immediately a sense of stripping back a lot of these covers, and attempting to directly address the audience in a type of communication that isn't possible outside the theatre. This creates some interesting moments, and when the mics are given to the audience, and it's our turn to answer the questions (which range from the innocent 'did anyone ever play doctors and nurses' to the more real-world 'did anyone sleep with a married person?').

Friday, November 16, 2018

Baltic Circle, Helsinki

My small northern tour continues with Baltic Circle, an international theatre festival I haven't visited for 10 years. Much seems to have changed - the intimate, inner-city feeling of the festival has been replaced with a hub of the post-industrial circus venue Cirko, and much of the venues have moved to the edges of the city, presumably in response to a combination of arts funding cuts and gentrification.

I'm pretty tired, to be honest, from writing, but I'll try to force out of a couple of reviews in the next few days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


Sometimes I just enjoy shows without really knowing why. Partly it's a matter of choice. But there's also definitely an element of mystery to it. I must get some kind of strange pleasure from non-conformity in audiences. I have a small bug inside be that jumps around the trap of consensus, looking for a way out.

The last point is, I think, a feature of any worthwhile critic. Whilst you should be able to understand how a text is likely to be read by the dominant cultural forces, you should also understand the possibilities that alternate readings might bring. I don't mean just subject positions, or identities, (although those are important, too) but radical readings that open up new possibilities for art - sometimes even totally against the intention of the artist. I'm an advocate for this because I think it is one of the key things that criticism can contribute to artistic discourse, and because it makes criticism an imaginative and generative autonomous practice - not just a reflector of what is already clear to everyone anyway.

At about the 10 minute mark, I began to really enjoy Невесомость (meaning 'weightlessness' in Russian), a collaboration between author Ruslan Stepanov, sound designer Artjom Astrov and lighting designer Oliver Kulpsoo. It would be difficult for me to pinpoint why. This might be a valid question from a neighbouring audience member, who sees only a set of repetitive etudes accompanied by occasional adjustments - fidgets almost - from the designers.

Photo: Lee Kelomees

Indeed, Stepanov states in his description that the show is about 'boredom'. From the beginning our attention span is played with, offering only a simple set of what could be warm-up exercises (descended from the artist's ballet training, I'm reliably told), a loop of which lasts for perhaps 6 minutes before being repeated. These exercises are undertaken by Stepanov himself, underneath a 'stadium roof' fluorescent lights, which intrude everywhere from the top down. Occasionally, Astrov interjects with sound, such as a low repetitive moan, or enters the stage to make sounds at a standing microphone. At one point, he exits the side door and plays music from behind like a disgruntled teen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Back in Tallinn again for the mini-festival Draamamaa, which showcases internationally-exportable Estonian work to international curators. I won't have much of a function here, as such events tend towards being anti-critical and are more about networking and connections (although in a recent article in Sirp, it's also claimed to be about külalislahkus, or hospitality). Nevertheless, perhaps criticism can still be some kind of conduit to... something... operating underneath, or alongside, such functions. Maybe this is even where it's the most important.

It's worth mentioning that my visit occors in the midst of the death of Estonia's contemporary theatre stalwart, the group NO99. Rocked by the sexual misconduct of its artistic director towards a younger actress, the group last Wednesday announced that it would not continue working. Such is the interest in theatre in Estonia that 9 out of the top 10 most-read articles of the national newspaper were dedicated to the ending of NO99. It ends 12 years of often seismic experimentation, with the group and its resources to splinter across different areas or Estonian and international cultural life. I'm happy to be catching the end of it.


Anyone who has ever turned to YouTube in search of the answer to a household question will understand me well when I say: instructional videos are a new type of performance. No sooner has one innocently clicked around for how to change the back tyre on your 3-speed bike, or how to install a Bosch 3X-GT8 washing machine, than one is inevitably drowned in the dulcet tones of some well-meaning US Southerner or Northern-UK fellow (it always seems to be one of these two, although possibly that's just the things that I search for) offering his banal and pathetic - but so helpful! - step-by-step on the subject. To say it's a new genre of performance is probably an understatement: it's a cult of DIY that inserts performance into our most vulnerable situations, the questions we need to know but were always afraid to ask. Previously the realm of the mother or father, now this role is played by Bob from Kentucky, providing a safety net for our insecurities with his inoffensive and calming procedures.

It's a rich site of performance, and one milked earnestly by the performers of Workshop (actually 3 members/affiliates of NO99) - Mart Kangro, Juhan Ulfsak and Eero Epner in this situational performance. The audience enters the space and sits at a giant communal bench, covered in work-lamps. Eero Epner begins to meekly address us with the first of many instructions - a brief history of lamps in Estonian art, with the dialectical point: to look out for 'what is not in the image'. He is soon interrupted by Kangro, who offers a short lesson in how to correctly saw a piece of wood. Then it's Ulfsak's turn, and he instructs us in how to find the end of a roll of cellotape, and how to poke the key out of a doorlock from the other side. And so on, and so on, at times veering on the pointless, comic, or ridiculous (What do you do if there is no armrest on your chair? Position it close to the table, and lean your arm on it. Of course).

Photo: Veiko Tubin

These are all relatively mundane tasks. But slowly, as the dramaturgy unfolds, there's a kind of accumulation that creeps up - sometimes, instructions are connected to one another, sometimes they refer back to an earlier instruction, sometimes even repeating the instruction of another as though it was the first time. Death intervenes - and we are offered instructions on correct treatment of a body (played with some physical discomfort by Epner) and Ancient Egypt's development of a special sheet to protect the eyes from being pecked out.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Panel Discussion: Latvian Theatre Showcase

In early November I was invited to participate in the annual showcase for Latvian Theatre. The press conference included experts from Slovakia, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and... me. See below.

Video: Spelmenu Nackts
Featuring: Featuring Miriam Kičiňová (SK), Richard Pettifer (AUS/DE), Rūta Mažeikienė (LIT), Tatiana Zelmanova (BEL) and Evgeniya Shermeneva (LAT)

Friday, November 9, 2018

Lenin's Last Christmas Party

The last days of Vladmir Lenin are kind of secret in-joke. The father of the revolution, he is known (but not exactly proven, because there is no much misinformation and mythology surrounding the event) to have become so sick that his speech became largely delusional, and he had to undergo various bodily transformations that happen when one is sick to this extent. Of course, such mortal conditions are not fitting of a revolutionary leader, around which there is necessarily a massive ideological apparatus legitimising leader and political system equally. Therefore, his last days are somewhat mysterious, as various accounts seek to hint at a reality of a man in decline, whilst not being able - because of protocol - to directly say what happened.

So the actual cause of death and details of his last days are a site of endless speculation for conspiracy theorists, as if they might hold the key to the legitimacy of that which preceded them. Monumentalised in a mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square, his body now stands (or rather, lies) as a paradoxical reminder of the immortality of the idea opposed to the inevitable mortality of its subjects. Though the person himself died, the ideas lived on! Albeit in an, *ahem*, occasionally slightly different form.

Lenin's Last Christmas Party is a fascinating attempt by Latvian philosopher and first-time director Uldis Tīrons to capture the resonance of those last days in the situation of theatre. Based on documentary evidence from the accounts of his nurses, the play abstractly recreates the Christmas occurring roughly one month before his death. Lenin is waited on by his doctor, nurses, and family, who tolerate his incomprehensible ramblings and mischievous jokes. The source material is first-hand accounts from nurses waiting on Lenin, some of whom are also characters in the show.

Tīrons adopts a pastiche style to recount the story, somewhat reminiscent of Robert Wilson with its colour palette,  disconnection of gesture from meaning, white-face, and reliance on a kind of stylised dreamscape. The set (Rūdolfs Baltiņš, Dace Sloka) is a kind of cube or prison on stage, with holes the actors sometimes peer, poke, or speak through. The costumes (Dace Sloka), likewise, are about as far from period as you might imagine, rather offering structural compliments to the gestures of actors. Lines are delivered with a tight, musical inflection, as if to suggest an underlying stress beneath. Discussing the paradoxes of the moment, the doctor (Kaspars Znotiņš) says "The church promises us immortality, then philosophers try to convince us that to live is dying. How can we not give in to fatalism?"

Photo: Jānis Deinats, Jaunā Rīgas teātra arhīvs.

A blithering, befuddled, trickster Lenin (Vilis Daudziņš, in a much-lauded performance) appears from a cupboard at the back, and from this point on he and his health are the central focus. Undergoing confusing medical treatment, he plays jokes on the over-earnest nurses using a false foot. As the play moves towards the Christmas party itself, things become even more absurd (the announcement of its beginning is translated as "And now, children, let's fucking sing songs and recite poems"). The characters don their animal masks and begin to celebrate in earnest song-and-dance routines performed for the audience in formation (the chorus of one of these is 'Coca Rosa' which is possibly a type of ecstasy). The climax occurs when Lenin takes the mask off one of the actors to reveal... Lenin himself.