Best of 2012: Theatre, dance and 50-year trilogies

I find it very difficult to write meaningfully about art that I love. Work that I find compelling, moving and aesthetically triumphant often overwhelms me – emotionally, intellectually, artistically. The problem isn’t that such work registers on one of these planes more prominently than the others but that it registers profoundly on them all simultaneously, sparking a myriad of associations subject to flutter and flux, and near impossible to pin down and shape into some comprehensible pattern. Or, indeed, into a review.

Nevertheless, in the interests of ending the year on a positive note, I want to talk about three of the best pieces of art I experienced in 2012, from the three art forms I’ve been embracing the most in my late twenties: theatre, dance and literature.

Over the last couple of years, though a series of slightly unexpected (but happily embraced!) coincidences, I’ve found myself spending a lot of time in the world of professional Australian theatre. I don’t usually review the plays I see, simply because my current place of work (MTC) makes that a bit of a conflict of interest. Nevertheless, I saw a lot of theatre in 2012, but by far the most compelling and moving experience for me was Simon Stone’s reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

Stone has more or less hit on a winning formula with his adaptations: take a play that’s out of copyright, strip it right back to its narrative bones, and then entirely rewrite it. First staged by Belvoir in Sydney in 2011, The Wild Duck won a pile of awards and then toured Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre as their 2012 season opener. I already had a soft spot for Ibsen and for this play in particular – although what Stone created was not quite the same beast as that which was forced to endure my teenage analyses. The skeleton of Ibsen was still visible, but in the way that, say, nineteenth century infrastructure and architecture still punctuates and shapes the flow of traffic in a twenty-first century city. The result in The Wild Duck was a 70-minute punch in the guts. Sharp, fast-paced, superbly acted, skilfully crafted, it reminded me of just how powerful the medium of theatre can be.

Akram Khan’s fantastic, mesmerising and magical Desh was probably the highlight of this year’s Melbourne Festival for me. Diving deep into personal history and his Bangladeshi heritage, Khan brought the stage to life with all the tricks and trimmings that theatre can offer: flying upside down in clouds of cloth, puppetry, shadow play, even live animation. But the show itself would have been nothing if the man at the centre of it wasn’t so astoundingly talented and charismatic. Khan is trained both in traditional Kathak style and contemporary dance, and it’s a remarkable fusion of the two that shapes his choreography. I wrote a short review of Desh for Fjord Review so I won’t cover the same ground here, but let me just say that if you missed Khan at this year’s Melbourne Festival, well ­– kick yourself if you haven’t already and make sure you get tickets to see him next time he’s here.

One thing nobody tells you about writing a PhD in literature is that it will completely destroy your reading habits. After spending years choosing novels solely for their contextual relevance or their significance in your chosen field, reading starts to be rather less a pleasure and more like a chore. For me, the long, slow slog to recover the ability to read for leisure involved going back into old favourites – childhood favourites, specifically.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner was published in 1960, and is (at first glance, anyway) a relatively straightforward fantasy novel about two children, Susan and Colin, who uncover a world of old magic when they go to live with their aunt and uncle in Cheshire, England. Drawing heavily on the hyper-local mythology and topography of Alderley Edge  where he grew up, Garner created a world where the line between the familiar and the alien was always slippery and elusive, a trait that would only become more pronounced in his later work. He followed up Weirdstone with The Moon of Gomrath and then – stopped. He didn’t stop writing, just stopped writing that particular trilogy. It took him fifty years to get back to it, and Boneland, published in August, was the result.

So what happens when a writer doesn’t finish a trilogy for fifty years? In Garner’s case, his writing style develops, matures, becomes more sophisticated and less straightforward. He splits and overlaps narratives in increasingly allusive prose. Dialogue is repositioned, stripped back, decontextualized. And when he finally does come back to the beginning, to those first books, to that ‘unfinished business’, he ends a children’s story with a novel for adults.

In many ways, Boneland feels like it is a novel about growing old. What does one do in the aftermath of all that magic? How does one recover what seems irretrievably lost? What happens to the kid who was left behind? How does he remember what was real? I loved Boneland, for its profound sadness as much as its liberation. If you haven’t yet discovered Garner’s work, consider this a personal recommendation.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. “reading starts to be rather less a pleasure and more like a chore.”

    It’s taken me years to change the habit of seeing reading as ‘functional’; “I’m reading this for a REASON’. Not a lot of fun in that approach, and I still struggle against it. It’s partly because I do actually have a lot of reasons to read the things I do: research, what’s happening in the field, examination of “how” someone writes something”, etc…

    • I sympathise completely. Over the last few months I’ve tried very hard to stick to reading only the things I absolutely *want* to read in my down time (such as it is). Still not very good at it.

  2. Gosh, haven’t thought about The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in years, and certainly didn’t remember (know?) it was a trilogy. Thanks for the reminder.

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