Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Major Minor Party

The Major Minor Party group devised by Version 1.0, presented by Canberra Theatre Centre and The Centenary of Canberra, at the Playhouse May 29 – June 1, 2013.

Performers: Drew Fairley, Irving Gregory, James Lugton, Jane Phegan, Kym Vercoe.
Dramaturgy: Chris Ryan, Dr Yana Taylor.  Creative Development: Dr David Williams.  Video: Sean Bacon.  Sound: Paul Prestipino.  Lighting: Frank Mainoo.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 29 : Theorising practice and practising theory: making performance with version 1.0 : A micro-lecture by David Williams.

I was wondering on what basis I should judge The Major Minor Party, until I read David Williams’ “micro lecture”. He is “a founding member of version 1.0, and has co-devised and produced all of the company's work since 1998 [and] is currently an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney, and has lectured in theatre at UWS and UNSW. He has scholarly articles published in Australasian Drama Studies, Performance Paradigm, and Research in Drama Education, and his writings about contemporary performance appear regularly in RealTime. David is on the Board of Arts on Tour, and is a member of Performance Space’s Arts Consultation Group.”

His lecture begins: “We (version 1.0) start a new work not knowing what it is.”  My review begins: “And they still don’t know.”

This wasn’t the case, as I recall, with their perhaps most famous work CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) (2004) when they ripped apart the children overboard issue with a surgeon’s precision.  This time their target – “Sex, Religion and The State” – is too broad, too diffuse.  It suffers from being too obviously group devised, needing, I suggest, the focus that a single writer might offer.

At the same time, the performances are very precisely acted, so the audience was kept firmly engaged throughout the 90 minute show.  Yet Williams’ words: What is the shared passion that brings us here together? Might passion be uncertain? Can I be passionate and uncertain at the same time? I don't know, but I'm thinking hard about it; if I think hard enough I can make it so, explain to me why I felt that the show was a bit thin, the content of too many items was not well developed, and the transitions between scenes left a sense of dramatic disunity.

The strongest scene, in fact, became almost a parody of Williams’ words about “sharing passion”.  As a sort of climax, the actors approach the audience – naming themselves with their real names and as members of Version One point Zero – exhorting us to join them and donate money.  Fortunately, before anyone actually hands up their credit card, the group impressively sings of the passion of Version 1.0, sounding very much like a Hillsong Church meeting, retreating slowly upstage.  As the singing fades, in a side conversation a member thinks out loud “If we were a church, we could claim tax exemption”, and another responds “So we should become a church instead of a party?” – and at last we saw real satire.

It just took too long to get there.

William’s lecture (which of course the audience is unaware of) gives the impression, quoting the inevitable Roland Barthes among several other theatre theorists, that this kind of group searching for what sound like “known knowns, unknown knowns and even unknown unknowns” is original, contemporary or experimental.

My experience and research suggests that Erwin Piscator began this kind of work in his Piscator-B├╝hne Studio in 1927 “to provide a framework within which the techniques of political theater could be explored and developed”.  (The Political Theatre – A History 1914-1929 by Erwin Piscator, Avon 1978; translated by Hugh Rorrison from Das Politische Theater Albert Schultz Verlag, Berlin, 1929).  And there were many group devised companies particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, including here in Canberra.

Which allows me to segue (I love that word) neatly into the relevance of the show to Canberra’s centenary.  The words of Lady Denman are quoted as bookends, but the content of the scenes (such as argument between Family First and the Australian Sex Party, and the connection between Cory Bernardi and right wing religion)  and the theme of the linking scenes (on voluntary euthanasia) had no special significance in the Canberra we live in, or on whether we have achieved the “beautiful city of our dreams”.

The issues were all about Federal Parliament and legislation, but even here there were opportunities to work in many more of the minor parties which were listed at the beginning of the show but forgotten about later.  In fact Canberra itself could have added much more spice with stories of the Sun-Ripened Tomato Party, the Party Party Party Party, and the infamous Dennis Stevenson who was elected for two terms when he opposed self-government, and then camped out in his Legislative Assembly office.

The intention of The Major Minor Party to raise the issue of religious influence in politics was clearly sincere, but I doubt this show will have the impact that CMI had without more focussed writing and stronger satire.