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Being radical for the blue rinse set

The Lost Echo

By Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright
Sydney Theatre

Wed. 13 Sept. 2006, Parts I (1pm - 5pm) and II (7pm - 11pm)

Post-structuralism doesn’t allow a universal aesthetic by which to judge shows, which confronts the critic with the task of overcoming personal taste. People I respect like The Lost Echo - “bold, detailed and confronting” they tell me. I agree it was bold, detailed and confronting, but I’m not sure it was good theatre.

Barry Kosky has so much enfant terrible about him that he makes you feel uncool if you don’t like his stuff, and there is some pretty good stuff in The Lost Echo. The cast is excellent, the presentation technically sound. At fault is the underdone concept. I fear for artists who keep repeating their earlier work. Kosky is still too much like a little boy unzipping his fly to show off to his friends. His greedy need to confront conservatism is symptomatic of a deeper conservatism that reinforces what it wishes to disdain. Nothing dates you more than what you rebel against.

Kosky sets up a conservative Eurocentric view of the world as a dominant worldview to be confronted, which makes him as radical as John Howard. Kosky’s old punk extends rathen than subverts bourgious paradigms, offering a titilllating frisson to a conservative audience. Kosky wants to be erotic and disturbing, but is merely salacious and adolescent. The Lost Echo has some evocative images, but it is a work so idiosyncratic to be like looking at a painting and admiring the signature.

Ostensibly, the work is based on the writings of Ovid and Euripedes, divided into four quarters, each half ticketed separately. The first half is well-presented, recited text interspersed with some very good singing of old standards. If you see only the first half, you can come away with a positive impression of an interesting cabaret. It’s the second half, the third quarter in particular, where things go seriously awry, with Euripides's The Bacchae set in a toilet.

It is as if Kosky brought to the performers some good but underdeveloped ideas which needed work, and he didn’t get the ensemble feedback needed on the first draft . There are indulgent non-sequiteurs that were funny once at rehearsal which don’t stand repeating. A lot of Echo seems like a director trying to impress the cast and crew with his offbeat brilliance.

It seems that Kosky’s strongest conviction is his belief in his own talent, yet things unravel because he lost control of his material, because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. For example, the last quarter is interupted three times by a phone call to Paul Capsis in the character of a mother advising in strine on cooking the roast or something. The point is the joke of the interuption of the performance. Once was predictable but passable, three times seems a comment on the underlying material - is it really so weak that it needs to be propped up by this juvenalia?

There is plenty of vision, but direction is lacking. Echo lacks continuity, there is no weaving together of narrative and performance. We get recital, then cabaret, recital then cabaret. Ovid’s writing is not illuminated, but becomes a resting point between songs.

Inside this bombast there’s a really good and humble show, which wants to be liked, and doesn’t demand to be admired. The work could possibly be salvaged by distilling it to a coherent four hours, still a long show. What we get is a chocolate box of arresting images which becomes sickly sweet with repetition. Kosky seems afraid of an empty stage, and powerful images are compromised by crowding; he will never use one image if half a dozen will do.

I was not convinced that the setting of a men’s toilet was justified, but like so much of this show it’s just inverted glitter. There are some good bits - Paul Capsis expounding in Greek, Peter Carroll hanging from a clothes rack, but overall there is too much breast-beating post-structuralism. The performances are excellent, but the direction sells short the talent. In one scene Pamela Rabe slinks around like a droll Morticia Adams, which is cute, but a cheap laugh. Kosky’s liking for quirky juxtaposition was all the rage in the eighties, but now it comes across as cheap laughs undercutting the aesthetic impact.

I could feel myself part of the audience straining to like the show, trying to give the benefit of the doubt, like parents watching a high school production and wanting to feel proud of their Barry, who is so talented and misunderstood.

It’s as if he doesn’t have the strength of his convictions, as if he doesn’t really believe that he can be serious, or will be taken seriously. Instead he indulges himself, impressing his colleagues, completely forgetting his audience. Great theatre is a humbling experience for audience and artist, not a stage for flaunting your talent.

Echo finishes with Paul Capsis camping up Killing Me Softly, which just showed what could have been. The very last scene, the full cast slowly shuffling backstage, projected high and stark, is beautiful and moving, but the beauty is overwhelmed by the relief that we are at the end of this portentous showboating. Barry Kosky needs to burn the bridges to his youth if he wants to produce mature work.


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