05/07/2013 at 4:13 pm Leave a comment

July, 2013

With all the hand-wringing over the last couple years about ‘new-work’ and what qualifies it to be described as such it’s worth noting that playwrights such as Paul Gilchrist have quietly been churning out original Australian plays at a Dickensian rate, in fact if you listen carefully there are a team of monkeys back-stage at the TAP working on new material for him on a strict schedule (I had my suspicions now I am certain).

But I digress – for those who haven’t been glued to their sets while various knickers get twisted around the debate, here are the cliff notes:

1) A lot of commissions and development and production funding has been funnelled at what amounts to populist “modern” revisions of canonical* texts. The word ‘populist’ here refers to the apparent wider audiences’ desire for brand-name theatre, the theory being they won’t risk ninety minutes on a New Australian Play but they’ll happily rock up for something with the Chekhov or Euripides name attached.

*See Exhibits A-E Oresteia, Thyestes, The Seagull, Medea, The Dragon.

2) There is nothing new or innovative about this practice, however concerns are being raised over the prioritisation of adaptations over actual new work. To make things easier, there is no standard for what qualifies as a new theatre work. The Australia Council website captures the broad ambivalence towards taking this issue seriously across the industry by suggesting “New Work productions can be new pieces, or new productions of existing works.” So pretty much anything can qualify, and companies are allowed to “self-assess” what elements of their programming choices fit this elusive category.

3) The current personalised simplification of the debate has brought it into the realm of the ridiculous. With quips like “It’s not Ibsen’s script, it’s my script (which I wrote after him, using the original characters’ names and the same set of plot points as he)” adding nothing at all to our understanding of the complex process of dramaturgy and development that playwrights will attend before putting dialogue to the page, let alone clarify the difficulties of authorship and text in this topsy-turvy post-modern world.

4) It’s precisely this complexity that has made the issue so contentious. While the “anything goes” approach to classifying New Australian Work has made life easier for funding bodies it has reached absurd proportions, most recently with King Kong being nominated in this category for a Helpmann Award (that’s the Australian based musical, not the New Zealand movie of the same name). Arguably some aspects of the show are original and other elements Australian, the controversy of this announcement demonstrates that the predominant factor in classifying “new work” is a market incentive. Like the Oscars, The Helpmann Awards is a marketing junket, and Kong was nominated as a New Australian Work for no other reason than it fulfils a broader global market strategy. So it’s difficult to separate any argument in favour of such a broad classification from the financial benefit that a producing company might gain by having their production funded, commissioned or world-toured on the basis that it is in fact new, Australian and not borrowed from events occurring in scripts from authors past.

5) For further discussion on the subject refer to this excellent podcast from Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily from a couple weeks back. Theatre figureheads Lee Lewis, Ralph Myers and Lachlan Philpott give a pretty good account of the current state of play when it comes to adaptations and their place in the Australian Theatre landscape. There’s also some fairly level-headed analysis and discussion from David Berthold (and friends – see comments section) here.

Somehow amongst all this it has been revealed that there’s something of an anti-literary bent amongst our leading theatremakers. Something akin to a dumbing down of theatre consumption to a level that exists purely on a scale of entertainment value and good storytelling. Which is odd given the reverence we apply to Chekhov, Shakespeare and Euripides, that we would consistently return to re-assess and present their tales with differing hues of meaning. Somewhere it became taboo to present a play on stage as anything but a straight-up story, that literary value was to be shunned. We became bogged in the rut of naturalism some time ago and judging by the particular conventions associated with New Work* (using the word advisedly), the obsession with realist contextualisation of story is occurring in abandonment of attendance to the broader symbolic gesture from which they were wrought.

All this is context for a thorough viewing of Paul Gilchrist’s latest work Rocket Man – a play which bows to the conventions of domestic naturalism – as a ‘story’ it follows the Chekhovian example of the everyday imbued with the monumental. These are working people from your life or mine. An aspiring actor, an exhausted nurse, a loyal friend, a troubled young man. You immediately know them. But the play actively resists classification as a simple piece of domestic realism, with reflexive aphorisms sparring around the function and value of theatre (some sharp jabs at the world of public funding – worth noting subtlenuance are self-sufficient), it spins a web of in-jokes and intrigue that’s something of a hallmark for the writer. Rocket Man seems to writhe inside its skin, like the eponymous astronaut (now there’s a pointless occupation if there ever was one) who’s self-aware but chained to discontent and thus paradoxically oblivious to his potential. The human story. Unsettling, wry, dark, rich in humour and tension. Everything a play should be. And yet, something more. And reaching to break the constraints of its form.

This is a writer who’s asserting his world-view through an original script, who’s unafraid to laugh at himself and the world in which he works, with all the hype around certain theatrical rockstars and the legitimacy of their work it’s easy to overlook the grafting, strictly independent worker bees of the Australian theatre scene. This is original work, it’s new, it’s distinctively Australian, it should be setting off alarm bells in our literary departments. And if you don’t get the scholarly allusions or meta-theatrical gags there’s plenty of eye-popping candy in the form of a generous advertorial for Bonds (Made in China). May I respectfully suggest that the producers source some New Australian Underpants, if such a thing exists.

ROCKET MAN present by subtlenuance, playing at the TAP Gallery until July 14th. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist. Featuring Daniel Hunter, Sylvia Keays, Alyssan Russell and Stephen Wilkinson.


Entry filed under: Inside Theatre REVIEWS, New Work, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , .


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