TIM BENZIE: When your company Gilgul staged the Jewish tale The Dybbuk at Belvoir Street Theatre 10 years ago, the poster came with the disclaimer This is not ghetto theatre. Your latest production The Lost Breath is the second part of your Jewtopia trilogy, weaves three Kafka stories with the life of Houdini, and is staged in English, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, but there’s no qualification this time. Does this mean times have changed for the better?

BARRIE KOSKY: The disclaimer actually came out -¦ because we didn’t want people to assume that this was some sort of folkloric, Jewish theatre in which reference points were exclusively set for a Jewish public -¦ Even though I can say yes, I’m a Jewish artist and yes, I explore particular Jewish themes, I don’t like the audience to assume that what they’re going to see is Jewish theatre. I’d prefer to leave the Jewish out of it -“ I prefer the term theatre -¦ People still refer to indigenous theatre, they still refer to so-called queer theatre, which I can understand, but no one actually goes along to a David Williamson play and says this is white and Anglo-Saxon theatre. People say Australian, but I would long for the utopia where people would leave out the national or religious or racial adjective and concentrate on the noun.

TB: In an interview last week, Melbourne Festival artistic director Robyn Archer spoke about a return to the obsession with the body, reflected in everything from Botox to David Blaine. In The Lost Breath the connections you draw between Kafka and Houdini are somatic -“ one an artist with a horror of transformation and the other an escapologist whose body became a sideshow. Does The Lost Breath reflect this part of the zeitgeist?

BK: I would agree with Robyn but I would also say that ever since human beings existed there has been a fascination with the body in terms of representation in any visual art, the body has always been the central figure of it -“ even in abstract art -¦ I think that what you get with Kafka and Houdini are, in a way, what appears to be contradictory. Kafka had tuberculosis and he was constantly fighting against the sickness in his body but also he was a health freak and was completely obsessed with exercise. He was a vegetarian, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink alcohol, he was obsessed with body, I wouldn’t say body fascism because he wasn’t a muscle mary but he was completely and utterly obsessed, and wrote about his body and wrote about other people’s bodies. Houdini on the other hand was this incredibly fit, incredibly strong, sort of small, punchy, muscular man who wanted to sort of stretch and push his body to see how far he could actually go -¦ And so when you actually put these two figures together or merge these two figures you end up getting a very interesting combination: a mixture of desire and fear.

TB: Vaudeville is again part of the performance vocabulary in The Lost Breath. What appeals to you about this form?

BK: I think any director has a particular theatrical form that they play within. So a playwright might be obsessed with people in rooms, or families -¦ And one of the languages I like exploring in most of my work is that vaudeville musical stuff. Basically because I love it and because I think it’s a theatrical form that extends right back to Aristophanes and goes right through not just Western theatre but lots of other forms of theatre -¦ And I like the non-naturalistic form of it. I’m not so much interested in two hours of musical, what I’m interested in is using the musical form or using the vaudeville form and then juxtaposing [it] with other things. Kafka loved the Yiddish theatre and loved French boulevard vaudeville and Houdini was actually performing in it all the time, so there’s a sort of connection with it -¦ [and] I don’t like theatre that doesn’t highlight its theatricality -¦

TB: You’ve spoken openly about your concerns with the corporatisation of theatre in Australia. Are you looking forward to returning with this production, after working as co-artistic director of Vienna’s Schauspielhaus Theatre for the last two years? Do you feel in some way vindicated by the work?

BK: I’m very much looking to coming back to Australia because I don’t live there -¦ I don’t harbour any grudge against Australia -¦ I didn’t do the expat thing of saying fuck you, I did the expat thing of saying I have to go. It’s just an environment that I’ve outgrown. And so when you actually get over that and you leave, you look at the country with a different perspective -¦ I do not want to live in Howard’s Australia. I know that Howard’s Australia is not representative of the entire country, I know that, but I simply do not want to live in that political environment and I don’t want to live in an environment where I feel that ideas and the arts are still not taken seriously enough. It’s exhausting and it’s also demoralising -¦ Of course there’s major problems with the European landscape, as you know, just as many problems. I’m not saying I’ve come to this utopia. But I’ve certainly come to this place where I can work exactly how I want to work, which is the most important thing for me. But in terms of Australia: it’s a great place to visit.

TB: Could you have created The Lost Breath in Australia?

BK: No, I couldn’t do it artistically because all my work comes out of the place I’m in and the work that I’m doing. I couldn’t have done The Lost Breath without doing all the Gilgul shows and The Dybbuk, I wouldn’t have been where I am now without all of that. So, I’m very grateful and appreciative, and very self-aware that this work could not have been done without that. But in a way, I don’t think I could have done this [in Australia] because, for example, I worked on this for two years. And we rehearsed it for three months. I can’t rehearse a play in Australia for three months. It’s those things that actually make a difference -¦ But the good thing is I couldn’t give a flying fuck what the critics write about it. I don’t have to worry because the production’s been on very successfully over here and I have a successful career in Europe -¦

TB: In a keynote speech you delivered to the National Circus Conference in Brisbane in 2000 you said you felt optimistic about artists and audiences and pessimistic and cynical about everything else. Do you still feel that way?

BK: Yes. Absolutely. Probably more -¦ Everywhere around the world everyone’s always talking about the crisis, theatre is in crisis, a crisis in the arts and this and that and I simply don’t see it in two groups. I don’t see it in the artists -“ well, I don’t see it in all the artists. There’s always going to be fantastically talented people who can do it. And I don’t see it in the audience’s need for the theatrical ritual or the audience’s need for the theatrical experience -¦ What I do see is a crisis in government and the funding of the arts and I see a crisis in the dialogue that the press have with the arts -¦ I think the problems come from the belief that the arts can survive within a capitalist marketplace and the arts should be self-funding, which of course they can’t, in the way that hospitals and education can’t, and shouldn’t, our taxes should be used for these things -¦ I think people should put it into perspective, because we still live in a time when more people go to the theatre and more theatre is produced than any time in history. So these people that talk about it wasn’t like it was before, I think it’s just some sort of nostalgic Golden Age they’re inventing in their heads. Tell me when exactly was it better or worse? It just is -¦ I don’t despair about the future of theatre. I think the more and more crap television and film goes on, the better it is for theatre to be completely different from that. I’ve always said that as long as we live and breathe there will always be a human desire to sit in a space with other people, watching a live experience. There will always be that. So theatre will always exist.

The Lost Breath (Der Verlorene Atem) is playing at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre from 14 to 19 October at 7:30pm. Phone Ticketmaster7 on 1300 136 166 for bookings or visit www.melbournefestival.com.au for more information.

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