Friday 28 September 2018

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2018

It's time again for Melbourne Fringe, the annual festival of performing arts which tests boundaries. I've been in South Korea and Japan for most of September, but have managed to catch a few shows in its final week. Here's what Narrelle Harris and I have seen...

1. Narrelle's Fringe Diary.

Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

Attendees of Rowena Hutson's show Broke are offered cake on arrival at Studio 2 by 'Rosie', dressed in blue dungarees, a red bandana (a la Rosie the Riveter), and a pair of Princess Leia-like ear muffs.

The last item is no coincidence, as Carrie Fisher is cited as an inspiration for Rosie's stories of her experiences with anxiety, panic disorder and gaslighting: 'It's a show about toxic masculinity and baking.'

Rosie's passion for DIY and baking are intertwined with her history of crippling anxiety, and tempered by her optimism and gentle support of the audience. She explores ways of demonstrating what a panic attack feels like, infused with humour and energy (and mindfulness about not triggering anyone in the audience).

Given a significant percentage of the population is likely to have had experience of anxiety and panic, the show has a strong dramatic effect. Hutson balances the emotional impact of the experiences she describes with an adorable, slightly goofy energy.

The show is in turns sweet and affecting, but is clearly a work in progress as some sections drag, detracting from the impact. Once issues of pacing and flow are addressed, this strong narrative about the seeds of anxiety will have more impact.

In the same venue, just over an hour later, Joanne Ryan undergoes a 35th birthday crisis in Eggsistentialism. Waking with a hangover, her terrifying question is not 'What did I do last night?' but 'What am I doing with my life?'

There follows an hour of wit, warmth and critique as she tries to work out whether or not she ought to have children.

This personal quandary is interwoven with Ireland's history of women's reproductive rights; her own mother's story as a single parent; social attitudes to parenting based on gender; and the pros and cons (she makes a list!) of becoming a mother.

This show is a mix of philosophy and social critique, along with personal history and the exploration of what is a good life. It's interspersed with amusing interjections from her mother, and enhanced with superb audiovisual content. The conclusion is satisfying, and full of wisdom.

2. Tim's Fringe Diary.

Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux
Until 30 September 2018, Courthouse Hotel

Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

In a room above the Courthouse Hotel’s busy bar, a man sits on a stage playing a video game involving soldiers fighting in monochrome streets.

Before long this opening scene of Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux shifts to an actual war, the Great War, as the young man discovers his great-grandfather’s war diary in an old chest and transitions to the character of that soldier.

Actor Shane Palmer maintains the energy onstage as he takes us through the horrors of the Western Front, leading through recruitment and training to the carnage of the frontline. It culminates in the battle for Villers-Bretonneux, famously linked with the valour of Australian troops who helped recapture the town from the Germans.

The material is well paced, but feels similar to other stories we’ve been offered about World War One; I’m not sure what this tale brings to the voluminous canon of work about that conflict that’s new.

Also, there’s something forced about some of the lines - as the character suggests, for example, that this battle might the first ever example of a tank-on-tank skirmish (it was). If more was revealed of the soldier’s feelings and personality, and he stood out more strongly as an individual, we might be more moved.

Having said that, Echoes is a snappy piece, and Palmer neatly projects the mix of wide-eyed naïveté and determination that keeps his character focused. As the 100th anniversary of the Armistice approaches later this year, and the four-year centenary of that appalling conflict draws to a close, this isn’t an unworthy example of First World War remembrance.

Across the road and behind the North Melbourne Town Hall (aka Arts House), something far edgier is hitting the stage. Cockroach is billed as "an amoral revenge tale for the #MeToo generation", and involves a woman who finds she's been transformed into a cockroach.

"Ah, Kafka's Metamorphosis," you think, but you'd be wrong. Performer Melita Rowston has reached back into the pre-Kafka past to riff on the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, a set of tales in which women are raped and/or turned into objects such as trees.

The twist here is that C, our heroine, uses the power of the cockroach to twist these tales of men's domination the other way around. One by one, she punishes abusive men in the style in which they have abused - from the sleazy movie producer to the malpractising doctor.

This revenge fantasy is delivered in raucous style to the backing of high-voltage electric guitar music, and via Rowston's energetic, confident physicality and acid-sharp delivery. Cockroach is not at all polite, but it is darkly funny and utterly timely.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues to 30 September 2018. Find program details and buy tickets at its website.

Saturday 22 September 2018

Deathmatch in Hell: Drinking in the Golden Gai, Tokyo

On this trip I was assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

My final day in Japan was... interesting. 

I returned to the city from the spa town of Kinugawa Onsen, dropped into the Japanese Sword Museum, checked into my Shinjuku hotel, walked to the Park Hyatt to find its New York bar wasn't open, enjoyed the over-the-top show at the Robot Restaurant, ate ramen at the local branch of Ichiran, then finally walked into the Golden Gai.

Ah, the Golden Gai.

This atmospheric warren of bars along narrow alleyways is a relic of the 20th century, when the area was associated with prostitution. 

Although areas like this were reportedly demolished by fires started by the gangster Yakuza chasing redevelopment profits, the Golden Gai miraculously survived; partly thanks to locals taking turns to act as lookouts overnight.

The legacy is a fantastic area that feels separate from the big, busy city enveloping it. The small grid of alleys is dotted with tiny bars, most with room for only a handful of seats. 

The result is that each bar has its own distinctive, warm personality, and patrons and bartenders end up chatting to each other.

I enjoyed wandering through the maze, but I also had a mission: to drink at Deathmatch in Hell, the metal-themed bar which a friend had put me onto.

Like all Golden Gai bars, it was tiny - but the owner had packed a lot into the decor:

Two Japanese whiskies and a bourbon later, I was feeling the Golden Gai vibe. 

I had a flight to catch... but I didn't want to leave this ethereal Tokyo enclave. Like MacArthur, I shall return.

Thursday 13 September 2018

How to Eat Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

On this trip I'm being assisted by the Japan National Tourist Organisation.

I arrived in Japan yesterday by ferry from Busan, South Korea, and one of the first things I did was eat ramen. Fukuoka is famous for its particular style of the noodle dish, known as Hakata ramen after its most historic district.

The best place to go for the real thing is Ichiran, a ramen chain which has outlets dotted across the city. I found one in an underground food hall near Hakata train station.

There's a little bit of self-education required so you can order, but there's English language signage so it's not too difficult. 

The first thing you see upon entry is this vending machine:

If you have a closer look, you can find an array of choices beyond the basic ramen dish. 

Note that there's no credit card option here. Japan is still a cash-oriented society for small purchases like this, so you'll need to have cash ready. The machine very efficiently accepts notes and coins.

I ordered the ramen and their special vinegar. I could have added lots of toppings to that, and maybe a beer or a tea, but I wanted to keep things simple on my first try. And that came out to 1,010 yen (A$12.60), which was easy to produce as a 1000 yen note and a ten yen coin.

It's worth noting at this point that even without adding an extra order of pork slices on top, this is not a vegetarian dish. The broth which is the foundation of Hakata ramen is made by boiling pork bones, which is what gives it its characteristic taste. I'm usually vegetarian, but today I was being 'flexitarian' for research purposes.

The machine spits out some tickets, and you take these with you into the dining area, which is a compact space of private alcoves - one per diner:

Once seated, you'll find a form in front of you which is to be filled out with the provided pen, allowing you to tailor your dish in a number of ways from noodle firmness to level of spiciness:

When this is completed, You press a button on the table top, and a partly concealed staff member behind the screen takes the tickets and your order preferences. Once cooked, it's delivered to your table via the same gap, and the curtain is then drawn down.

There's another form on the table for extras which you can order while eating - an extra serve of noodles to dunk into the soup, for example - but otherwise you're all set. You have ramen!

Hot, tasty, Hakata ramen...

Who's hungry?

You can find Ichiran outlets at its English-language website.

Friday 7 September 2018

Between North and South Korea: Into the DMZ

I was hosted on this visit by the Korea Tourism Organisation.

Today I had the chance to do something I didn't have time for the last time I was in Seoul: visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.

The tour run by Panmunjom Travel Centre takes the traveller to a number of sites connected with the border, culminating in a brief visit to the Join Security Area (JSA) itself - the heart of the DMZ, where the two Koreas literally meet in a small 'negotiation village'.

Interestingly, we were joined on the bus by a North Korean defector, a woman who fled the north in 2011 with her daughter. It was fascinating to ask her questions about her life and former country as we headed to our first stop.

This was the Mount Odu Unification Observatory, where one can gaze upon North Korea across the point where the Han and Injin Rivers meet, forming the border at this locality. Across Korea the DMZ is four kilometres wide by agreement; but at riverine sections like this, it narrows significantly so the two countries are only a few hundred metres apart.

We then visited the Freedom Bridge, across which prisoners of war returned after the Korean War ended...

... and nearby, saw this massively damaged locomotive which had been trapped between the opposing forces, and later moved within South Korea as an an emblem of the conflict:

The highlight of the day was the visit to the JSA, a slow process involving barricades, checkpoints and passport checks - even a dress code inspection, as North Korean soldiers used to take photos of sloppily dressed Westerners to use as propaganda with their people.

Finally we stood inside the simple blue conference room at the heart of the zone, constructed so the border literally runs through the centre of the conference table.

We were allowed a few minutes to take photos, as long as we didn't bother the South Korean soldiers who were our escorts and protectors.

Here I am standing briefly within North Korea, with my military protector. The door behind leads to even more North Korea... but I didn't fancy stepping through it.

Our video briefing earlier had, after all, described the JSA as "the most dangerous place in the entire Korean Peninsula."

In the circumstances, I was glad to get out of there in one piece.

Find details of the Premium Panmunjom Tour at this link.