Saturday, November 10, 2012

Empire by Graham Jones and Jepke Goudsmit

Empire by Graham Jones and Jepke Goudsmit.  Kinetic Energy Theatre Company at the Drama Lab, Australian National University Arts Centre, Canberra, November 8-10, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 9

The evening’s program, put together by Kinetic Energy based in Sydney, began with poems of social criticism – Poetry with a Punch – by local Canberra poets, Fiona McIlroy, Sandra Renew, Jill Sutton, Laurie MacDonald and Hazel Hall.

Though, as an introduction to the presentation of what was advertised as a “gritty play”, the staging of the poetry was very ordinary, with Jones popping on and off to adjust the microphone and no special lighting, MacDonald’s and Hall’s works particularly engaged the small mainly academic audience with humanity and art.

Following the poetry, in what might have been an effective lead-in to the play, the well-known A Chorus of Women sang the Lament by Glenda Cloughley and Judith Clingan, an anthem for peace which was first sung in the foyer of the Australian Parliament as the news was being broadcast of Australia’s decision to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in invading Iraq.

Lament begins with the line “Open the doors of the chambers of your hearts”, but unfortunately at this point the doors of the Drama Lab were shut behind us for some half an hour while the stage was set for Empire.  Though this was an opportunity for coffee and cake and a preparatory visit to the toilets, the momentum was lost, as people stood about waiting in an unprepossessing back corridor in the bowels of the Arts Centre.

If the poetry and song had been staged well and incorporated into the total presentation, as Act 1, then the audience would have been warmed up to face the cold hard agit-prop approach of the main event, Empire, an indictment of the role the United States plays in the modern world as a democratic equivalent of imperial dictatorships of the past.

Unfortunately, dramatically speaking, polemical theatre of this most uncompromising kind is its own worst enemy.  This is not to say that the information presented was unbelievable – in fact I would assume that especially among this ANU audience there would be few who had not known the critical works of Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky, or had not understood the importance of the revelations of  the whistle-blower Bradley Manning, or of the horror of the helicopter gunship’s murder of Reuters journalists in Baghdad.

As a history presentation, however, and including the taped conversations of US Air Force pilots during the Vietnam War and the sermons of John Winthrop, a founding father of the attitudes of Americans as he brought ‘civilisation’ to Massachusetts in the 17th Century, Empire might be a useful education piece for teenage students.

As a theatre production for a modern adult audience it was simplistic, lacking in subtlety, poorly structured, often basically boring.  The only highlights for me were the fact that I got to see the whole of the footage of the helicopter gunship episode, and I enjoyed the quality of the musicianship of the young student wind instrument players.

I can’t say I enjoyed very much of the acting performances, except for the spirited young woman who confronted Noam Chomsky.  This was almost the only occasion when something like real drama was happening – but only for a brief moment, as she left the scene in frustration and Chomsky remained in control of the intellectual battlefield.

The central conception of the play, with Arundhati Roy and Noam Chomsky as talking heads, espousing their political positions – quoting from their public writings and interviews – was not a bad idea in itself, but without any development of their personalities and how they may have dealt with the personal challenges they must, in real life, face, we are left with no more than cardboard cutouts.

It was disappointing, considering the artistic sensitivity and dramatic structure which characterised Graham Jones’ work in his earlier days as director and choreographer of the Kinetic Energy Dance Company, to see him decades later associated with such amateurish writing.  The art of expression through dance demands subtlety in movement without words, which was once Jones’ strength.  A drama with speaking characters demands a wholly different set of skills, to write and to perform.  Technically, too, the use of video, on a screen sometimes masked by the actors, and with confusing text above and below the image, or with far too lengthy slabs of chatroom text, showed a surprising failure in stage design.  I miss the dance Jones might have created, and would rather not have seen this quite embarrassing attempt at a play.

Bringing back A Chorus of Women to conclude the program might have worked better as the other bookend, if their first performance had been given its proper place.  But their entrance was disorganised, where it could have moved us smoothly on into a more positive note, as was clearly intended by encouraging us to sing along to When People Start to Sing (by Janet Salisbury and Johanna McBride) with the words “When people start to sing / Things are changing”.  The Women’s voices were strong and harmonious but there was no strength in the audience participation.

I could at this point launch into a lengthy essay on the tradition of agit-prop theatre, from  Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, through to Erwin Piscator’s success in 1920s Germany in having his middle-class audiences enthusiastically singing revolutionary songs after shows including film of war-time atrocities, and on, of course, to the famous Bertolt Brecht in plays such as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

I have no doubts about the sincerity and honesty of Graham Jones and Jepke Goudsmit.  These are necessary but unfortunately not sufficient conditions for the production of successful theatre.  Like mercy, the quality of good theatre is not to be “strain’d, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven...”  In doing so it enlightens and persuades, as some of the poetry and singing did last night, but the raging storm of Empire certainly left me cold.

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