Tuesday 18 July 2017

Diving Into The Unknown - Theatre Review

What: 'Alias Grace'/Catherine: The Body Politic
When: 15 & 15th July/16 July
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Margaret Atwood/Caroline Lee
Directed by: Laurence Strangio/Alice Darling
Performed by: Caroline Lee
Designed by: Anna Tregloan/Rachel Burke
Lighting by: Bronwyn Pringle/Rachel Burke

Caroline Lee in 'Alias Grace'
Caroline Lee is a stalwart of Melbourne theatre. Amongst her many adventures across the stages of the world Lee experienced a range of milestones at the renowned La Mama Theatre so it is no surprise she was offered a place in the La Mama 50th Mini Fest.

This also worked well into where Lee was sitting as an artist. In 2014 Lee undertook a residency at Victoria University and used her time to look back upon her career and investigate her journey as an artist. Interestingly I also did my residency at the same time although we never ran into each other (thus is the nature of the residency). Where I was a nascent babe in my chosen art form, Lee was looking at her body of work in order to move forward in her established practice. When La Mama approached her about this 50th anniversary celebration Lee was already to engage in the themes.

Eighteen years ago Lee performed her first solo show at La Mama in the timeless hit adaptation 'Alias Grace'. The show has been reprised 6 times since its premier, each time receiving accolades. Whilst I somehow managed to miss it every time previoius I can now join the chorus of how truly wonderful this show is.

Starting with material better than most, in 1999 Laurence Strangio and Lee set out to adapt the story Alias Grace created by Margaret Atwood into a solo performance and - as the saying goes - they have never looked back! That is not entirely true of course. Strangio and Lee have looked back 6 times now and, as is their process, every time they remount they begin from the beginning.

Every iteration has begun by going back and reworking their text and performance analysis. Heavily influenced by Peter Brook's The Empty Stage, Lee constantly asks herself the question "Why are we making and showing this piece of theatre now, right now?" As an example, in 2005 the Schapelle Corby saga was in play and gave the play a unique context. Today the show sits in an unstable world in which far right politics is dominating and the freedoms we women were promised in the 20th century have failed to yet be realised.

Lee's performance is complex, delicate, and textured to perfection. She demonstrates every skill in storytelling and brings sweetness and fear, passion and poignancy, confusion and control to a life story so unbelievable it has to be true. According to the progam this version of 'Alias Grace' focused 'on ideas of truth...what do we really know and how do we really know it?' These themes were perfectly articulated and I learnt some important lessons about story telling.

To compliment this early work Lee presented a performance of her 2016 solo performance Catherine:The Body Politic. It was truly fascinating to see her first solo performance piece in conversation with her most recent.

'Alias Grace' is text bound although the performance of it showed Lee's mastery of the physical in providing clarity of events and person's without actually seeming to be imitative. This performance also showed her explorations in physicality including some subtle Suzuki influences. Catherine on the other hand, almost completely eschews any kind of narrative and relies on physicality to help impart the psychology of the work rather than demanding we make meaning from the text.

Both works are about the state of being female in the world and - perhaps not evident to the naked eye - both search backward to look forward. The key for this new work lies in the name Catherine.

The concept of the 'body politic' emerged in European thinking around the same time as St Catherine of Siena emerged in Italy - the first great Catherine. The body politic is the idea of considering an entity such as a nation as if it were a human being. In the case of Lee's show, she is considering the state of being woman and, in particular, Australian woman as a single human being through the psychological worlds of 6 women.

The Catherines Lee portrays are Australian women, but the historical greats are clearly referenced. St Catherine eschewed the state of marriage to join the Church and then eschewed the nunneries to live in the world. She was instrumental in the return of the papacy to Rome. Catherine of Aragon was the first wife of Henry VIII but never bore him a son. She denied his appeal to the Pope to allow an annulment and forced him to create his own church - The Church of England - to deal with this problem. Catherine The Great was responsible for overthrowing her husband and ruling Russia. During her time as Empress education and art were brought to the common people of Russia and instituted the idea that all people were equal.

What these women have in common was a battle with forces seemingly too big and entrenched for their life choices. In Catherine: The Body Politic the women create by Lee are in the midst of their own great turmoils. They are still in the edges of the storm but there is a sense that it is dying down although we never find out how it ends for them.

Two stories stand out to me in this work. The first is the art lecturer who discusses the Russell Drysdale painting 'The Drover's Wife'. She talks about the woman depicted as being on the edge of moving on. This painting is fascinating because Henry Lawson's story of the same name is all about the woman who stays still. The other woman who stays in my mind is the farmer who brings a yoyo cookie and some water as an offering to the storm gods hoping to ease their ire.

Catherine: The Body Politic needs more work. At only around 45 minutes there is space for Lee to help the audience into the characters, ideas and themes. It is not affective enough to be expressionist. This means the audience need to engage logic to attempt to make meaning and each vignette disappears to fast to assign context or relevance. The show has good bones but the text needs extending and Alice Darling's direction just adds to the obscurity.

As a pair these two works really do provide insight into Lee as a performer and performance maker. Together they show the depth and breadth of her skill in the art of performance and we definitely see her areas of passion and interest.

5 Stars/2 Stars

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