Saturday, October 4, 2008

Review: War Lounge

Directed and Devised by Suzanne Kersten
Artists Clair Korobacz, Paul Moir, Julian Rickert and Christine Logan-Bell
Presented by t.v.

Here's a disagreement. How exciting. 'War Lounge' is something I went to see based pretty much solely upon Born Dancin's endorsement. 
I had so many problems with this piece, and not in a good, provocative, questioning things I had previously believed to be self-evident truths, kind of way. 
There are, in my humble opinion, problems with this piece on pretty much every level. 

Level One: Semantics
There is a basic semantic point I will make - not in order to be petty - because I believe it to be indicative of one of the problems of this performance. At least one-third of the piece paraphrases the experience of people who have lived in Iraq, sometimes in their own words, sometimes not. While this is, in itself, interesting, I call its relevance into question simply because the title of the performance is: 'War Lounge' and it is clearly stated that the intention was to make a piece about war. 
There is a serious argument that the occupancy of Iraq is not a war. War has never been formally declared. 
This may seem trivial but I believe it is integral. Part of the ideological problem with the US led invasion of Iraq is that it is not legal
This doesn't mean that it is not a good starting point for a performative exploration (on the contrary, last year's 'Gifted and Talented' was my favourite performance in the Fringe), it just illustrates a simple research problem (which I'll go into detail about later) and naivete. 
Granted - Iraq, its decimation, population and internal conflict was only one third of this piece, so I'll move on. 

Level Two: Distance From the Material
There was interest for me in the stories and opinions of Iraqis sought and collected by the performer. I would have preferred to hear them directly - recorded on video or audio - but they were presented sensitively and interestingly in the garage / store room of the performance site, which was set up as a kind of museum. 
Whilst this was pleasing it did keep all the content at an arm's length, seeming to categorise these experiences as cultural or anthropological curiosities, viewed by us at a distance, through the prism of one performer's experience and understanding. I thought there were a couple of missed opportunities to let us as an audience experience something for ourselves, such as lining us up against a concrete wall, which was done, but so gently and nicely that the experience was one of relative comfort. 

Level Three: Performance
Another way in which war was addressed in 'War Lounge' was an exploration of the life of poet Wilfred Owen and the parallels between his life and the life of one of the performers and this exploration was much more interesting to me. However, the performer of this section was somewhat stilted, stumbling over words and lacking in charisma. The content of this section was far more appropriate and relevant. And there is no doubt over the legal or semantic status of the First World War, in which, Owen took part and about which he wrote. 
The nature of some site specific performance works is an intimacy between the audience and a performer, and this particular performer seemed awkward and uncomfortable, not necessarily with the intimacy, but the intimacy made it all the more obvious. 

Level Four: Installation
The final section I will address took the form of an installation. Formally, this kind of work - art installation / intervention within the context of a site specific performance can be problematic - someone who is presumably a performer / theatre-maker producing something partly as a visual art response and partly as an intervention recording the experience and then feeding that back into the performance in the form of a projection or installation. It succeeds not as a piece of visual art installation because it is not executed with the skill and craftspersonship reflective of contemporary art practice - it still looks like a show (ie, visible cables gaffer taped to the floor). I am aware that this sounds fussy, and perhaps it is. I don't mind these things in theatre, its partly its charm, but as an installation it doesn't reflect the level of skill that art installations are executed with. And the video work was incredibly shonky. Video art has come a long way in twenty years, the bar is quite high in terms of technical achievement. The video in this was bad to the point of distraction. 
Is the video a recording of the specific intervention, or a piece of the installation itself? These things have very different purposes and therefore different demands. I think its an important distinction. 
Each audience member is given an ipod through which to listen to a soundtrack accompanying the installation. From what I understand, each soundtrack was identical, and despite being told that we could skip tracks, or even press stop, I don't think anyone did, consequently everyone was listening to the same exact thing at roughly the same time, rendering the individual ipods somewhat redundant. Unless I'm missing something. 
So I understand, broadly, how 'Balloon Diplomacy' was arrived at in response to War. To me it trivialised the subject matter somewhat in its whimsy and flippancy. That is just me though, I'm  not stating that as an error of judgement upon the performer's / creator's part, just my taste. Which is, it must be said, questionable to begin with. 
On the other end of the spectrum, as much as I disliked the distance created by the museum installation, it was executed beautifully.

Level Five: Research
My final issue was with the misappropriation of a quote. It was not an intentional misappropriation, but again, nothing some more research couldn't have addressed. 'The act of War is a failure of imagination' is a well used quote and one which has various sources attributed to it, however I don't believe the original source to be a philosopher residing in Tempelstowe, as the performer told me it was - and while he may, indeed, have quoted it, that doesn't make it his. Personally I am familiar with it through Andrew O'Hagan's excellent opening address to the 207 Sydney Writer's Festival (if you haven't read it, do, now. Don't read any more of my drivel, just go, save yourself. While you still can). Whilst he doesn't use the quote directly O'Hagan makes a point that I think the creators of 'War Lounge' could have benefited from - imagining other's loss, not just listening to it, or reading their account of it but applying it to ourselves. 

Going out and actively meeting Iraqis is probably a good thing to do. Asking them about their country, their experiences and their loss is a great thing to do. Asking them for an object that represents their country is a good, if somewhat difficult, thing to do. But to make a performance directly out of that experience and using the content gleaned assumes certain things about us as an audience. That we don't know any Iraqis, that we haven't heard their loss, their grief. It was not disingenuous, but it was condescending. And those experiences weren't the performer's to tell - she no doubt had permission - but her experience was one of asking people around Flinders Lane if they knew people from Iraq, then meeting people from Iraq. Then asking them things. Then listening to their answers. Then telling us. In a show. In South Melbourne.   
Not my cup of tea. 
So as you will have assessed by this point, I don't think this is a must see performance.
'Gifted and Talented' succeeded on so many levels. At its core, it applied a certain specific experience foreign to us to another certain specific experience familiar to us, and illustrated how closely aligned these two experiences are. One experience, an atrocity, the other, a right of passage. The show by Post was so formally daring and the darkest comedy I have seen in ages. Its point was made effortlessly, without angst or earnestness. 

But what do I know. 


Anonymous said...

Dear Martin,

I've just realised that, if I don't finally respond to your lovely comment, I probably never will, and you may think I'm a Rude Bitch for the rest of my life. While I like to think of myself as a nice person, not at all a Rude Bitch. Albeit one terribly, terribly snowed under at the moment. (I have, most urgently, a 8,000-word thing, academic and bone-dry, to shape by yesterday. Furthermore, because it's a thing of prestige (published!, academic!, gasp!) it is not at all meant to encroach into my paid-employment hours, of which there are 40 a week. I have also been required to do some basic soul house-keeping, in order to stay as sane and happy as possible, thus visited Sydney for a longer period of time, and discovered a burst pipe inside a wall - which prompted another discovery, that I am not on my own lease.) All of which, you may imagine, has resulted in me not saying thank you for your lovely comment earlier. Well thank you for your lovely comment. I've been reading your blog with great interest and a lot of real joy (what wondering writing!, how rare!, how appreciated!). I normally reply to my comments. I am, normally, a sane person.

But, until normal becomes quotidian again, I'm off to write academic on a diet of barbecue-flavoured Shapes that my flatmate has given me out of honest fear for my life, I suspect, and green tea, hopefully finishing before my paid employment is due to start, in a few hours. And then, one day, I will review Villanus in all its glory.

And Post were great. I agree with you (together with the entire Fringe Class '07). Beautiful girls. Gifted, talented. Shame I cannot agree with you on anything else because I've missed most of this year's Fringe. (But wait until MIAF.)

Martin White said...

Thanks Jana, I do understand, and would never assume to think such things.
The burst pipe inside the wall is rather laden symbolically wouldn't you say? And how much are we ever really on our own leases?

Anonymous said...

Sometimes more, sometimes less, Long Sentence. Sometimes so little that the landlord refuses to fix pipes until they know who exactly we are, and what brought us here. In times of great distress, what's relative becomes relative indeed.

I am, however, better today :) Hello!

Born Dancin' said...

Hi LSNS, great review - I disagree on some points but think it's a really interesting (and valid) response to War Lounge.

I thought some of the issues you mentioned were exactly what made the work so fascinating: the distance from the material was explicitly addressed by at least two of the artists, who were grappling with what it means to speak about "war" from the relative safety of urban Melbourne with all of its comforts. The attendant problems seemed to me not a flaw but a point of the exercise. The difficulties of what's been called allo-identification - of trying to put yourself in the place of the Other - were what I most took from this; it certainly had me thinking a lot afterwards, and I'm glad it had the same effect on you! Much better than works you like but forget immediately, I reckon.

If you dare a recommendation No. 2, go see 'There'. Excellent show.

Martin White said...

Born Dancin', yes I may just do that. I have a slim window of opportunity tonight perchance. I'm very interested. I shall keep you posted.
I have been required to see about a gazillion cabarets in the fringe this year and its wearing me down so a little well done the-ay-ter could be just what my spirit needs.

j scott said...

Do your own performance next time instead of writing such a petty review. Those who can't do become gym instructors, or critics.