Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29

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In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

Don’t old dogs deserve better?

I Malvolio (Tim Crouch)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

September 17 – 20

In Tom Stoppardesque style, Tim Crouch’s “I, Malvolio” reimagines Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” through the eyes of its misunderstood, ‘notoriously abused,’ mad, minor character clown who has been tricked into believing his noblewoman employer is in love with him.

“I, Malvolio” is both delightful and difficult to watch. From its outset, the show subverts typical theatre expectations, with house lights up to allow Crouch to heckle audience members. What follows is an unsettling rant in which people are singled out and berated for, amongst other things, being too busy for church or prayer in favour of a little bit of drama, ‘watching the sexual deviants parading up and down, pretending to be other people … in a heaving mass of profanity and idolatry.’

Crouch’s ambition to break down the ‘fourth wall fantasy invented to contain the art form,’ is taken to audience participation extremes, including having one young man kick him in the backside. Indeed, when Malvolio’s character is driven to the brink of suicide by hanging, he enlists two audience members to be of assistance — one to hold the rope, and one to pull away the chair, as he interrogates onlookers, asking “is this the kind of thing you like to see?” It is an uncomfortable moment because it is a difficult question to answer honestly, given the character’s lack of likeability; having been teased and tormented, Malvolio projects his ridicule upon the audience, vowing from the outset “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” (He is.)

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As a one-man show, “I, Malvolio” is demanding drama. Physically, Crouch gives an entertaining John Cleese-like performance as he ponders the nature of madness. (‘Some are born mad. Some achieve madness. And some have madness thrust upon them.’) Despite his ragged and soiled appearance thanks to his grimy, stained bodysuit, with grubby turkeycock headdress and tattered yellow socks, he repeatedly assures audiences, “I’m not mad.” The statement is actually debatable, given the way the performance meanders into pathos in a quest to illustrate how ‘old dogs deserve better.’ And therein lies the show’s genius.

“I, Malvolio” is an eloquently written show, cleverly crafted to incorporate phrases and lines from “The Tempest”. At times, this serves as detriment; words cascade over each other with such haste that little time is allowed to ponder their imagery. Despite this verbosity, its ethical underpinning is clear. “It’s all too easy isn’t it? To laugh at people. .. To exploit a weakness. … To take pleasure in someone else’s downfall.” And don’t old dogs deserve better?