FRONT – Is it ever about the music? (Theatre Review)
The Depot Theatre with Jack Rabbit Theatre
From 28 June to 15 July 2017
My partner has a saying: Seek forgiveness and not permission. It’s formally attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper who was forced to live by it, but it has long been espoused by Catholic priests and is equally attributed to Muhammad. The point is, it’s better to act and err than seek permission, wait and be refused. Precisely the opposite of how we live, constantly sniveling after affirmations, glorifications, support and flattery – all forms of permission. Indeed it is this form of permission that we attribute most to our great artists. It is the rock star, the brilliant film maker and the writer who are truly able to seek forgiveness rather than permission. Success in art is like a passport. We have no sympathy for the man we know to be abusing his daughter, or the reformed paedophile next door in a street full of families, but Woody Allen’s films are a “difficult question.” We comfort ourselves with the theory that Mia Farrow is mad (as opposed to living with an abuser for years) or that she has convinced her daughter to lie, but none of this can be attributed to Roman Polanski. He has also been able to seek forgiveness rather than permission.
The list of famous people we are desperate to forgive who created something we love goes on and on. We come up with a litany of reasons, but in the end, we are left with ourselves in the dark. Either we forgive and love their art – which means we must love everyone’s art equally, including the nameless white boy that shoots up a school – or we refuse to inject our culture with their sickness – and refuse everyone. Neither option is possible. And again, we are left alone with ourselves in the dark.
When Michael Abercromby writes his young musicians into a world, the constant claim that they are “all about the music” is brought down to its barest bones and examined for what that truly means. FRONT is an examination of the commodification of music, of its appropriation, but it is equally about the young artists who seek permission rather than act. It is treacherous (as Nietzsche demonstrated) to reduce music to a determined ideological content, to impose upon it a representational purpose, and it could be argued that “popular music” has been determined for this purpose alone – to satisfy our desire for the “Truth” that lies at the bottom of all things: another form of permission. Music comprises both the vestige of a sublime poetic vocation, and insight into the dimensions of a certain kind of lived poetry. The empty gestures played out by the band on the stage are met, approved and equaled by the empty gestures in the behaviour of the crowd. It is the ultimate reflective behaviour and can’t be reduced to anything – even the music itself.
Therefore when Michael Abercromby places the performance in a play, the empty gestures take up a different tone, and we can see and examine “The Band” as a poetic creature. Here its tragedies rise to the surface. Abercromby’s young protagonist (Lincoln Vickery) is all about the music, but he is corrupted by his inability to see himself right from the start. He isn’t all about the music; he is all about the permission. As he seeks permission and acceptance from different authorities, he rises to his own surface. Divisions within the band are inevitable. Indeed, after witnessing FRONT, one is left questioning how any bands survive.
In this, something quite remarkable is accomplished in placing one performance style over the top of another performance style. Abercromby preferences theatre over live performance, but the parallels between the two are dutifully and artfully combined in FRONT and unmistakable. The audience plays the role of theatre audience, but the desire to break out into concert mode dwells inside us through every scene of FRONT. While we get a sense of seeing beneath a certain kind of façade, we are equally introduced to our own façade and the circular obfuscation continues. It’s almost as if Michael Abercromby is arguing just as poetry has at stake a certain kind of educated audience, popular music or The Band has at stake a certain kind of uneducated audience. It is the place we go to feel our way in the dark; the dark that hides our desperation for permission. In this way, The Band is the permission we seek; the embodiment of its own pretentions and therefore in a separate category to the moralising necessary for a functional society. When Michael Abercromby states “It’s never just about the music” what he really means is “It never was about the music.”
There is something interesting in the desire we all have to fulfil ourselves creatively. Yet no young person sees themselves as a nameless creative genius – unless it is one of those unfortunates who become famous after death, and even that requires a certain kind of notice and recognition in life. There is equally something in the older generation’s refusal to let go of the permissions of band culture, festival culture, and art culture in general. From the misogyny of Hip hop and the faux feminism of Taylor Swift through to the paedophallic thread running through all Woody Allen’s films and Bill Cosby’s television show, there is a permission granted the artist that calls forth the most ludicrous of justifications.
FRONT examines these issues with a deft yet light touch. Its real brilliance lies in its ability to twist the audience from theatre mode into concert mode, back and forth in a delightful dance of confused identity for the audience. The always very funny Charlie Falkner is an excellent Keith Moon archetype while Jack Anwing plays a charisma-less Sid Vicious. Andreas Lohmeyer is a warm hearted drummer, beautifully posited against Lincoln Vickery’s tragic bildungsroman as lead singer. Elle Harris is the put upon manager who convinces us that the role is a member of the band itself, and Mary Soudi brings a very strong performance in her role as the record company exec made harsh by years of dealing with self-important fly-by-nighters. FRONT is filled with archetypes, stereotypes and phenotypes. It is written by a musician with a love and loathing for his industry. It’s a funny, witty analysis that moves deeper into the crossover between theatre and concert than we typically see.